April 5, 2020
For the first week of this pandemic our theme for worship was healing prayer. Though the theme was in place before the pandemic caused all the closures, it seemed all the more appropriate to offer prayers for healing when we realized that being physically together was not safe. And so, we prayed for the healing of the world, for the healing of our neighbors near and far, and for our own healing in whatever forms that might take.
For week two our theme was the possibility that the crisis we find ourselves in might give us opportunities to experience the redeeming work of God in ways we might otherwise miss. Remember my professor who lost his son to a mountain climbing accident and how he wrote, Perhaps I shall see things through my tears that dry eyed I would not see.[i] We talked about blue skies appearing in parts of China where smog was lifting because of the factory shutdowns, and how we may have unique opportunities before us now to let our own smogs dissipate, to do some resetting and refocusing on what truly matters.
On week three our themes were hope and beauty. We focused on the challenge of maintaining hope in the midst of crisis. How can we turn hope from a concept, from being something we wish we had more of, into a head and heart reality that actually informs and colors the living of our lives? And, we talked about encountering beauty as a powerful way to do that – how beauty opens us to the more of God’s presence and to the reality of divine possibilities that transcend our human limitations. Then, we practiced cultivating an aptitude for beauty, which is something I want to encourage us to keep doing. Keep choosing to see the image of God in the faces before us. Keep choosing to carry something beautiful in your heart at all times!
We have thought about a lot over the last few weeks, but now what? As the pandemic rolls on in its predictable escalation what do we need to hear and what does Palm Sunday have to say? These are the questions I was struggling with when Angela suggested that courage might be an appropriate theme. It seemed right, and then Debbie Thomas affirmed the idea in her blog.
She writes, Most of us are confined to our homes, and our church families are not gathering in person. Some of us have lost our jobs, our paychecks, our savings, our futures. Some of us are numb and disassociated, unable to process the scope of what’s happening around the world. Some of us are depressed. Anxious. Lonely. Terrified. Some of us are sick. Some of us are grieving our dead. Some of us — before this pandemic is over — will die.[ii]
That’s a pretty sobering thought. It was driven home by the news I received that a colleague, someone I was friendly with before she moved away, died just two weeks after giving her last sermon. She was younger than me. And, sadly, more and more of these close-to-home stories are becoming a reality for more and more of us. They are creeping closer, and as they do we all need courage.
But, what can I tell you about courage that you don’t already know? When I think of courage I think of the medical personnel around our country who are working tirelessly and at risk to themselves, in many cases without the proper protective equipment, to care for the sick. I think about the doctors and nurses who are leaving the safety of retirement and risking contagion in order to bring healing to those who so desperately need it. I think of both the physical toll and the emotional toll their work is placing on them. And, I imagine you do too. These are courageous people who need our prayers.
But of course, we don’t know what’s in their hearts and minds, what kind of courage they actually feel and carry with them, and as most of us remain in our homes, socially distanced for one another, with mounting uncertainties and growing fears, what we hold in our hearts and minds is what most matters most to me here and now.
In his book, “The Courage to Be,” Paul Tillich defines courage as “the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of nonbeing.”[iii] The self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of nonbeing. That definition may not be super helpful to you right off the bat. But, his point is that ultimately courage is our defiant stand against the meaninglessness of a life that ends in death. Courage is our capacity to accept that non-existence or non-being, a devastating discovery when it roots itself in our minds, though a reality for all mortals, does not prevent us from claiming purpose, living with love, engaging the world creatively, working for change and newness, feeding ourselves and feeding others with the goodness of being alive.
We may want more practical things out of courage. We may want the capacity for peace in the midst of danger, the courage to trust that we are in good hands, that there’s peace to be found in the stress, there’s peace for us if we get sick, there’s peace for those who are recovering alone, there’s peace for our children if we are not here, there’s peace to be known even should we succumb to the virus. It takes courage to claim such peace and that’s exactly what “the courage to be” is. That is exactly what we are offered in the God we worship, the God of Jesus Christ.
Tillich writes of Martin Luther, “Luther had experiences which he describes as attacks of utter despair, as the frightful threat of a complete meaninglessness. He felt these moments as satanic attacks in which everything was menaced: his Christian faith, the confidence in his work, the Reformation, the forgiveness of sins. Everything broke down in the extreme moments of this despair, nothing was left of the courage to be… But for him this was not the last word. The last word was the first commandment, the statement that God is God. It reminded him of the unconditional element in human experience of which one can be aware even in the abyss of meaninglessness. And this awareness saved him.”[iv]
Awareness saved him! It is amazing what a shift in thinking can do. Think of God not as another being, some other person, some other entity. Think of God as “Being Itself,” which is what Tillich and others would have us do. Think of God as transcendent reality in which all reality participates, as Existence (with a capital E) such that if God should stop existing so would everything else.
Now, imagine that “Being itself,” is embodied in a human being, and that human being rides on a horse as human kind lays down its palm branches and ushers the man to his torture and death. But, imagine the man’s courage to be as he moves forward toward the abyss of nothingness. Imagine how he remains utterly himself, how though persecuted he remains peaceful, how though mocked he remains forgiving, how though crucified he remains compassionate, how though dying he remains loving. Now, imagine that this “remaining” is the voice of God; imagine it is the defiance of Being Itself in the face of all that would negate it. It is God speaking your name, speaking all of our names, and saying I will enter nothingness and non-existence, I will enter pain and death, I will enter fear and unpeace, so that you will never be in any of those places alone. Have courage because you have me. Have courage because I will never leave you, I will not stop loving you. In fact, I would sooner die, and even that will not stop me.
[i] Nicholas Walterstorf, Lament for a Son
[iii] The Courage to Be, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952, page 155.
[iv] Ibid, 170-171