Holy Week COVID Contemplations (April 6) – “Trouble in the Temple”

If Mark was right, then it happened the day after His rather triumphal Palm Sunday entry when Jesus returned to Jerusalem after staying the night at Bethany.  For upon entering the Temple courts—perhaps the most crowded spot in the whole complex– the gospel writers tell us that Jesus created quite a stir by overturning the tables of the moneychangers and those selling lambs and doves.  And at least to some observers that might have seemed like a bit of an overreaction.

After all, the Law of Moses spelled out that when pilgrims came for a festival like Passover that they shouldn’t show up empty-handed to the Temple but ought to be ready with something to sacrifice there.  And who wanted to travel all the way to Jerusalem with livestock or even a dove in their hands?  Particularly when everyone knew that the Temple priests primarily approved for sacrifices only the animals which they also rather conveniently sold.

Likewise, it just made sense that those Sadducees who ran the Temple required that offerings be made in one currency only, namely, Tyrian coins.  (Never mind that such coins were stamped with pagan images—they had the highest content of pure silver and oddly enough, the money changers were also usually a part of those same aristocratic families.)

All in all, thus, it was quite a successful enterprise for the Sadducees, most of whom were not legitimate priests at all but had bought their position from the Romans.  And it seemed logical to locate these “services” (with a “convenience fee,” of course) right next to the Royal Stoa or covered porch on the south side of Herod’s Temple where the main entrance was located.

Jesus, however, seemed singularly offended by the whole idea, not only knocking all the booths and tables over, but also exclaiming in a loud and impassioned voice, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2.16) Because more than just reacting to the blatant price gouging going on, Jesus was telling them that they had missed the whole point of what it means to love God.  In fact, the incident with the moneychangers was not so much about only cleansing the Temple, I think, as it was about reinterpreting the whole sacrificial system as a means of truly worshiping God and loving Him with all of our hearts without keeping Him an arm’s length away.

Instead, what Jesus rather vividly demonstrated that day is that true worship has nothing to do with either the convenience of the worshipers (ouch) or those who job it was to count up the money at the end of the day and keep the whole thing going (double ouch).  And in a season of decided inconvenience for most of us–when we still can’t physically go to church at all–that’s a comforting word.  For perhaps this Holy Week can actually be about something else, namely, rearranging our priorities to simply have a heart for God.

Oh sure, it was dramatic.  But what else could Jesus do when those who should have cared the most for the Temple instead took advantage of their position to make a profit for themselves?  He even quoted from Jeremiah 7.11 about the den of robbers, which goes on to say, by the way, that God declares, “I have been watching.” And just in case you didn’t know it, He still is.

He’s not even six feet away.

(Log on each day of this Holy Week for a special word about Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem, and why it matters.)

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COVID Contemplations (April 3) – “Doing the Wave”

It was the wrong time of year, but in all of the excitement of the moment no one seemed to care.  For normally among the Jews in the first century, it was during the fall festival of Sukkoth or “Booths”—easily the most popular holiday of the year—when worshippers would parade through Jerusalem up to the Temple as they waved a makeshift bouquet of willow, myrtle, and palm branches known as a lulav.

Along the way, they would also recite the scripture for Sukkoth, Psalm 118, including the words of verse 25, “Lord, save us!” (howosiah or hosanna in the Hebrew) and quite literally, “Lord, rush us to success!”  And that, in turn, was followed by the next verse of the psalm, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Even if the season was wrong, however, the sentiment was exactly right.  For when Jesus descended down the Mount of Olives that spring day to begin the week of Passover the crowd around Him couldn’t help but honor Him just as at Sukkoth, or as they might have done for any king or conqueror who entered the city.  The palms themselves not only symbolized victory and grandeur—the majestic date palms which grew at Jericho often reached fifty feet or more, for instance—but they were regarded as tokens of joy and goodness as well.  Images of palms were even used extensively on Jewish coinage and came to be representative of the land of Israel itself.

And so the crowd began to pick up palm fronds and line the roadway ahead of Jesus, making it all the smoother, as well as wildly wave those branches to celebrate, just as the words of Leviticus 23.40 and Nehemiah 8.15 had instructed them.  Some may likewise have thought of the experience of the Maccabees more than a hundred years before when the Jews revolted against the Seleucids and once again entered Jerusalem with praise and palm branches, as recorded in the Apocrypha (1 Maccabees 13.51-52).

But for whatever the reason, it all got so rambunctious that the Pharisees in the crowd told Jesus to shush his supporters.  Jesus replied, though, that if His followers kept silent, even the stones themselves would cry out.  And as churches across the world gather for another Palm Sunday this weekend—largely bereft of any onsite worshippers at all—it may indeed be up to the stone walls of those buildings to pick up the mantle of praise this year.

Wherever you may be, however, I hope you will get a little rambunctious on your own.  Wave a branch of whatever you’ve got.  Go out in the backyard and yell “Hosanna” as loud as you can.  Put a picture of a palm tree or frond in your front window.  For just as He did long ago when the world was also a bit mixed-up, Jesus will be riding into our lives once again on Sunday.  And though we may all be a bit in enforced solitude, it’s not a time to put our praise on silent mode as well.

The world still needs—especially now perhaps—to hear us rejoice that the King has come to town.

 

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COVID Contemplations (April 2) “Wildflower Witnesses”

We won’t be making the trip this year.  For though I am sure we could do it following the current mantra for drive-in worship services—“come as you are, but stay in your car”—it would still be hard to justify it as an “essential journey,” never mind that we’ve driven out there almost every year at this time that I can remember.

Like thousands of others, we’ve gone, of course, to see the wildflowers.  For truly, not even an alpine meadow with a singing and twirling nun can rival the beauty of a springtime Texas rolling hill blanketed in bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrushes, and soon thereafter, Black-Eyed Susans.

But the journey is also a pilgrimage of sorts, or the very least, our version of the “Trip to Bounty.”  For though I never actually lived there, the little town of Chappell Hill, Texas, named for some of my forebears, has a strong ancestral pull on me, if only for the fact that it’s the one place on earth where I don’t have to actually spell out my name for others to get it right.

What’s more, we’ve gone not just to reconnect with a family spot, but to renew our relationship with nature itself.  For there is something downright healing about simply breathing in the fresh air, gazing on blue-flowered hillsides that look like pools of water, and remembering that man may have made the cities, but God made the country indeed.

Fortunately, we have taken enough pictures of bluebonnets—with and without various children, grandkids, and other family members sitting in the midst of them—to remind us of what we’re missing.  More than just that, however, even without making our annual pilgrimage, I know that the flowers are there.

Coronavirus or not, those bluebonnets, or more specifically, the lupinus texensis, are still pushing their petals upward, resembling the bonnets wore by the pioneer women who long ago saw them.

Those Indian paintbrushes or castilleja, notoriously unpredictable each year, are still flushed with selenium that some found to be an effective treatment for rheumatism and the Ojibwe tribe used to make their hair glossy and full bodied. (Too late for some of us.)

And those rudbeckia hirta, daisy-like with a dark center, will continue to lend their cheerful contribution to the explosion of colors that come when the winter is finally done and summer is knocking on the doors.

All of which is enough to remind me that even when I can’t see Him, God is at work in this world.  And for every virus there is a vine somewhere blooming on a hillside, despite the blight that may be elsewhere.  For every opportunity lost to this season of solitude there will be a new one waiting in the future.  And for every stressful situation knowing that God is in control can give us a peace that can surpass even our ability to understand and to comprehend what’s happening to us.

I’ll miss the trip.  But whether I gaze on them or not, I am grateful that those wildflowers will still bear a magnificent witness to the glory of God, not just in Chappell Hill but all across Texas and other places as well.

Here’s hoping I can do the same.Wildflowers

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COVID Contemplations (April 1) – “No Fooling”

No one knows for sure, of course, and the very nature of the day would seem to encourage ridiculous explanations.  But the most convincing historical evidence suggests that it began in France (insert joke here) in the time of King Charles IX.  For in 1564, Charles proclaimed that New Year’s Day which had been celebrated on March 25, the advent of spring, be moved back to January 1 to align with the more accurate Gregorian calendar.  Many Frenchmen, however, resisted the change and others simply forgot about it.  So the partying and exchanging of gifts continued throughout that week ending on April 1.

In turn, jokers made fun of those attached to the old New Year’s Day by sending them foolish gifts and invitations to nonexistent parties.  And whoever ending up being the target of those jokes was then known as a poisson d’Avril, or “April fish” in recognition of the Zodiac sign for that season, Pisces.  Centuries later, even Napolean, when he married his second wife on April 1, 1810, was nicknamed “April Fish.”

And eventually the custom spread across the channel to England, where on April 1, 1698, hundreds of Londoners were tricked into coming to see “the lions washed.”  But the best April Fools pranks have probably come from newscasters and newspapers.  The BBC, for instance, once tricked the whole nation with their video report of spaghetti growing on trees in Switzerland.  And in America, Taco Bell outraged many with their announcement on an April 1 that they had bought the Liberty Bell which would now be known as the “Taco Liberty Bell.” Beginning in 2000, Google also joined in the fun over the years with reports of a plan for human settlement of Mars, a mic-drop button on Gmail, and “Google Translate for Animals.”

This year, however, Google has announced it will resist any hoaxes out of deference to all those fighting the coronavirus pandemic.  And though I understand and respect that, in some ways it’s a shame.  For in times of disease, laughter is indeed still a good medicine, as Proverbs 17 reminds us.  Science tells us, in fact, that when you start to laugh, it not only stimulates the heart, lungs, and muscles, increasing the release of endorphins, it can also decrease your heart rate and blood pressure, help your circulation, and even improve your immune system as well as your mood.

With appropriate sensitivity to others, thus, take this April Fools’ Day to laugh a little.  Play nice.  But do play at least some.  It’s how we’ll get through days like these.

No fooling.

 

 

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COVID Contemplations (March 31) – “Feeling Like Frodo?”

His name comes from an Old English word meaning “wise by experience.”  But it’s pretty clear that if he had been given a choice in the matter, that the little guy would probably have preferred to pass on many of the experiences which came his way.  After all, he never even wanted to leave his comfortable shire and travel across those Misty Mountains and dark forests in the first place.  And after being pursued by Black Riders, waylaid by enchanted trees, stabbed with a Morgul blade, and then attacked by an army of Orcs, all while on an impossible quest to destroy the powerful “One ring to them all,” it’s understandable why for all of his courage and selflessness, the hobbit was just about overwhelmed by his circumstances.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” says Frodo despondently to the wizard who has guided him in his journey.

To which Gandalf replies, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

And it would seem that no less than those described by J.R.R. Tolkein in his classic work, The Fellowship of the Rings, the times that have been given to us right now are complex and challenging ones as well.  Even as we start a new month, in fact, we do so knowing that the social distancing guidelines and restrictions on normal life will continue until the very end of April.  For the numbers of those impacted by the pandemic have not yet even reached their apex.

Beyond the incalculable loss of those who will become sick and even die from the virus now upon us, however, are also the backstories of individuals whose futures have otherwise been irretrievably altered too… of high school and college seniors robbed of a final semester… of athletes deferred from championships and chances to shine… of weddings postponed and even funerals delayed… and of a myriad of other changes that no one could ever have foreseen when the year began just three months ago.

Through it all, though, there is yet the voice of the One who has “Ever Been and Ever Shall Be,” who exists beyond the dimension of time because it too is His very creation.  And He has promised not only never to leave or forsake us, but to one day make all things right, even wiping every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21.4).

The reality that is now sinking upon us like a coastal fog is that we can’t change the times that have been given to us anymore than Frodo could.  But as Gandalf reminded his friend, we can decide what to do with the time that is before us, to lose it in grumbling and resentment, or to redeem it–literally in Ephesians 5, to “buy it up”– for our good and for the good of others.

Nobody chose any of this, it’s true.  But could it be that we were actually made for such times as these?

 

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COVID Contemplations (March 30) – “Is E-Eucharist Okay?”

It’s not exactly a hot button issue for many folks, I know.  But for theological purists it’s a valid question all the same.  For after all, it is by definition a communal meal.  So is it possible to offer Holy Communion with integrity when the community is not actually present?  Or to put it another way, if the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is about breaking bread together, can it really be shared when everyone is instead scattered?

And at least my answer is yes.  For when Jesus told us to eat the bread and drink the juice or wine in remembrance of Him whenever we do so, I think He meant that just as taking bread and drink is a daily occurrence in all of our lives, so too He desires to be in our everydayness as well.  And especially when our circumstances are stressed as at present, we have a need to experience His closeness now more than ever.

In that sense, the question of whether or not Holy Communion can be shared digitally via livestream when the congregation is diffused across numerous households, and even around the world, is more of a pastoral issue than a strictly theological one, I think.  For Jesus Himself made it plain that the exercise of His power is not confined to His physical presence at all.

In Mark 8, for example, we read that the Lord honored the faith of a Syro-Phoenician mother by exorcising a demon or impure spirit from her daughter without ever even seeing the girl.  And similarly, when a Roman centurion came to Jesus asking for his servant to be healed the soldier told the Master that He did not need to come to his house as he was not worthy.  Instead, the man asked, “just say the word and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8.8) and when Jesus did so, his servant, so the gospel tells us, was healed “at that moment.”

I believe thus that we can ask the Spirit of God to come to all of our homes and use whatever bread and juice we may have gathered for a moment of drawing close to Him and each other as we corporately remember all that Jesus has done for us. Even while I respect that others may feel differently, we will continue to offer Holy Communion as we did Sunday during our livestream service on a regular basis until the glorious day when we can all assemble in person once more.

For in the end, it’s about connecting to the One who has invited us not just to His table but has blessed us all by coming to ours as well.

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COVID Contemplations (March 27) – “Home-School Daze”

I suspect we are all pretty ready for them to receive a well-deserved raise.  For especially if you’ve been homeschooling your children during this stay-put season, you no doubt have discovered a newfound admiration for teachers who deal with our kids every day.  You may even be able to sympathize a little with the woman who was seen out early one morning scraping the “My Kid Is a Terrific Student” sticker off of their minivan.  For I’m just guessing that the first week of homeschooling didn’t go all that well in her house.

On the other hand, what an amazing opportunity this is for parents and children to step into each other’s worlds, with dads and moms working at home while simultaneously trying to keep their kids’ learning curves going upward.  For despite the importance of public and private education, long ago the scriptures commanded parents and grandparents—as well as others blessed to be a part of children’s lives–to be the ones to teach the words of God to our children and talk of them all the time. (Deuteronomy 6.6-7) Likewise, the wisest man who ever lived, Solomon, reminded us in Proverbs 22.6 that we should “start children off on the way they should go and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” (Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee for those “middle years.”)

And all of this is because, as the psalmist reminded us, children are indeed a “heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from Him.” (Psalm 127.3) In turn, it’s the job of parents and loved ones to prepare their children for the day when they will leave home and enter into that wider world beyond.  And the biggest way in which our kids will learn is simply by watching their elders model what it means to be responsible to others as well as to the Lord.

So if you want to teach your children how to treat others kindly, for example, then let them see you write a thank you note for a gift, or step across the street to help a neighbor.  What’s more, let them see the why behind what you are doing and encourage them to ask questions.  And get used to the idea that you’re probably going to have to re-teach a skill far more than once.

To be sure, there’s probably a reason why James 3.1 tells us that “not many of you should become teachers,” for the truth is, it’s pretty hard work indeed.  But at least for now, that’s the role God seems to be giving to many during our stay-at-home shutdowns, and as has often been said, God does not so much call the equipped as He equips the called.  Perhaps one gift of the coronavirus is to be reminded that all along, thus, it’s been our job to teach our children about who God is and what it means to follow Him as disciples in this world.

And in the meantime, if math and science homework are eating your lunch, hang on, friends.  For the public schools, at least in our area, are starting back with mandatory on-line classes next week for those of all ages.

We really should be paying those teachers more, though, shouldn’t we?

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