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Where is God in our Isolation?

 

[A sermon meant to be preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Trumbull, Connecticut on March 22, 2020, but cancelled due to COVID-19 sheltering in place.]

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A few weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, one of the last times someone outside our families touched us, a priest pressed ashes onto our foreheads with the admonition, “Thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” To paraphrase, Memento mori, remember that you will die.

If you’re like me, my body’s return to dust did not seem imminent. Then, just days later, the gravity of this pandemic began to lower its weight upon us, and, beyond reminding us of our mortality, it began to demand sacrifices of us we had never dreamed of.

Lent has a way of shedding light in the dark places, of illumining our misplaced passions and our impulses to distract ourselves from the reality of our finite journey on earth. 

Most of us, during most Lents, repent. We try to extricate ourselves from those things that distract us from God. The purpose of our self-denial, whatever form it takes, is to unite ourselves with Jesus, to imitate, in some small way, his total offering of himself in perfect obedience to the will of God.

ACF28C33-1095-4F18-8705-E0FEED72258DIt’s hard. It was hard for Jesus, who prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane in the full dread of his impending arrest and crucifixion, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”

The repentance called for throughout the Bible is a summons to a personal, absolute and ultimate unconditional surrender to God as Sovereign. 

Psalm 23 is a meditation on surrender, on the difficulties we are asked to endure in this life and a reassurance that God is present through it all.

The Lord is my shepherd; 

Augustine wrote, “When you say “The Lord is my Shepherd,” no proper grounds are left for you to trust in yourself. 

I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures 

and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul 

Psalm 23 does not quantify the circumstances in which God is present to us. God leads us, reviving our souls upon the mountaintops, as well as within the storms.

The Psalm continues, Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I shall fear no evil; 

Fears are low hanging fruit right now: the anxiety caused by ever widening restrictions, fear of a toppled economy, crashed 401Ks which for some of us signals a retirement marked by scarcity, the very real terror of job loss, our fears for the health of those we love, our fears for ourselves.

I shall fear no evil, the psalmist confesses to God, for you are with me;

your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

God shepherds us in our solitude, in our separation from routines we considered indispensable, from people and places, and even, incomprehensibly, from the Eucharist.

Scripture frequently affirms that God is present in our seclusion. 

In the Book of Genesis, Hagar fled Sarai’s harsh treatment and took refuge in the wilderness–God met her there. When the infant Moses was abandoned in a basket, hidden in reeds along the Nile, God found him there, sending Pharaoh’s daughter to rescue him.

After the crucifixion, Jesus’ own disciples sequestered themselves behind closed doors in fear. Jesus found them there, stood in the midst of them and ministered to them.

Scripture even speaks to our fear that we presently have about taking this virus to someone we love. The thought that we might inadvertently contribute to someone’s suffering and sicken them by our presence causes us to withdraw from those we love.

In Luke 17, we read, “Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

In Biblical times, those suffering from leprosy remained at a distance, knowing they carried in their bodies something that could harm others. They stood at a distance because their presence instilled fear. Isolation defined their life. Yet even from a distance, the lepers recognized Jesus, and they prayed, “Jesus, have pity on us.”

In our own isolation, Jesus finds us and answers us.

Psalm 23 gingerly leads us out of the valley of death, out of our fears of mortality, towards abundance, towards “the joys of resurrection life.”

The Psalmist prays, You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

God, hospitable and generous with His gifts, has prepared a table for us. The blessings He pours upon us runneth over. May we be drunk on the blessedness of God’s presence, despite the stripping away of so many things we claim as essential: affection, and community, communal prayer, and celebrations, despite even the incomprehensible loss of the Eucharist.

May we be drunk on the blessed assurance of our Salvation in Christ, whatever our losses, whatever uncertainty or illness we face. 

The fruit of Lent is not Easter. The fruit of Lent is intimate relationship with the Divine, achieved by the stripping away of whatever is not God. Of course, our Lenten deprivations are usually voluntary, not imposed upon us. During this extraordinary Lent, we sacrifice even our self-determination. 

If we peel away our last attachments to this world as the soldiers peeled the tunic off Christ’s lifeless, broken body, if we are so stripped of all that belongs to this world, then when we meet the risen Christ, our love for God will not be diluted by our love of this worlds good, of distraction or of independence, or even by our love of one another. 

We will recognize the risen Christ before us. We will know God, because we have been so stripped and humbled we can see nothing else. When we recognize him, will say as St. Thomas did, “My Lord and My God.”

Dear friends, we are walking daily in the shadow of death, a valley whose length and width we do not know. We do not yet know the duration or magnitude of its evils. But we know God. And God knows all. Psalm 49 reads, “But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead; he will surely take me to himself.”

 

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Photo credit: Joseph Rose

As Christ answered the lepers who called out to him from their isolation, the Lord, our shepherd, cannot help but answer us, lead us, calm us and feed us. God finds the hidden, like he found Hagar, and Moses, and like Jesus found his disciples shut away.

Jurgen Moltmann writes, “Death is the power of separation. Socially, it is experienced as isolation and loneliness. Eternal life is the power to unite. In this life, it is experienced as gathering into new community in eternal love.”

Though we are dispersed, though we pass our days isolation with every temptation to anxiety, we are not estranged from God. God has found us. God is reaching out to all of us. We are already dwelling together in the house of the Lord. 

 

    

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God’s Maternity: Could You Trust a God Who Loves Like This?

“May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me.”

Suppose you want to write
of a woman braiding
another woman’s hair—
straight down, or with beads and shells
in three-strand plaits or corn-rows—
you had better know the thickness
the length   the pattern
why she decides to braid her hair
how it is done to her
what country it happens in
what else happens in that country
You have to know these things.
                                   – Adrienne Rich

In this poem, the poet suggests that if you know what’s happening with a woman’s hair, who is touching it, who is caring for her, you know other things about that woman. You know where she comes from. One woman caring for another is the entry point to understanding a woman and her origins.

If we tell stories about our hair, about who cared for us, we can learn a lot about one another’s countries, one another’s origins. I’d like to tell you a story about my hair. My parents divorced when I was little, and my father picked me up after work on Fridays. The first thing he did when we got to his house, was sit me down before him and begin the slow untangling of knots and the surgical removal of the snarled mats that couldn’t be saved. He cared for me.

Once a year my grandmother visited, and she had designs on my hair as well. She would catch me out of the bath, comb my hair and set to work separating and pulling and folding my hair into French braids. With my father every weekend and once a year with my grandmother—I can’t say I enjoyed the process—but I knew something was happening. Love was happening all around my head

When a person cares for us, what do we feel?

Love? Trust? Fidelity?

Today’s Old Testament passage is famous for Ruth’s faithfulness. Ruth gets her name on pigeonsthe title of the book, and even in my bible, this chapter is titled, “Ruth’s Loyalty to Naomi”.  But I think what’s most interesting about the Book of Ruth is Naomi. I’d like to offer Naomi as a model of wisdom and even as a model of Divine Love.

Naomi’s husband has died. Her sons have died. She is in the very depths of grief. But from within that chasm of pain, her instinct isn’t for self-preservation or self-pity. Instead she looks outward to the care her daughters-in-law.

Naomi tells Orpah and Ruth,

Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. (Ruth 1:8)

Naomi tells them each to go to their mothers’ houses, where things will be easier for them. Where they have the promise of a better life.

Naomi pronounces a blessing on her daughters-in-law, “May the Lord deal kindly with you” putting them in the hands of the Lord and freeing them from any duty to her. “May the Lord deal kindly with you” Naomi says, “as you have dealt with the dead and with me,.” affirming their goodness and their kindness.

In her blessing on Ruth and Orpah, Naomi acknowledges their worth. She expresses gratitude. She places the young women’s well-being before her own, insisting that they go back to where their prospects are brighter.

Naomi self-emptying is reminiscent of Paul’s instructions in Philippians:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. . . [2]

Three times Naomi says, “Turn back.” She says,“My daughters, it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” Naomi is worried how her bad fortune affects them.

Turn back, she says again. Finally, Orpah is like, “I see your point. I mean, I love you, but if you insist.” Orpah heads back home.

Now here’s that verse where Ruth looks so good. In verse 16, Ruth says, “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

This is Ruth’s legendary declaration of loyalty. She is faithful. Praise God! But Ruth’s faithfulness a response to Naomi’s care. Even in scarcity and want and grief, with every reason to be self-absorbed, Naomi is trustworthy. Love and care between these women reveals the emotional country where Naomi and Ruth reside.

So, you might be thinking, What of it? What of women caring for one another? You may be wondering what braiding hair and maternal care or women’s relationships have to do with you, or with the Christian walk.

Allow me to suggest there may be a Naomi in your life, a woman whose kindness and wisdom could lead you in the ways of God. She’s a woman who might seem irrelevant. She may talk too slowly or tell too many stories. Or she might be invisible. You might look right through her every day.

As a widow with no sons, Naomi had no social currency and no power. She was an older woman, no longer able to bear children, her features fading, her hair grey. The bloom is off the rose, as they say. Would you see Naomi if she crossed your path at school or at work or at the grocery store, or if she were sitting in the pew next to you at church?

Of what use to us is such a woman? Here is her power: Naomi is a model of selflessness, a bearer of wisdom. Where can wisdom be found? The Book of Job reads, “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.” [3]

In the Letter of James, we are told to pray for wisdom.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.[4]

A woman who has experienced immense loss and survived is a reservoir of wisdom. She knows what matters in this life. She has a keen perception what is meaningless or superficial. Such a woman tells the truth.

Perhaps there are others who would welcome Naomi as a model of God’s maternal love. Perhaps your father was absent or distant or abusive, and you have difficulty conceiving of God as “Father”.

If you have trouble trusting God the Father, can you trust this conception of God? A God who wants only your good, whose attentive, intuitive care anticipates your unspoken need. Who in scar

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city, insecurity and uncertainty plans for your well-being and helps you find your way?

Perhaps Naomi could be a model of motherhood for those of you whose mothers could not care for yo

u, for whatever reason, or who neglected you, abandoned you, or hurt you in any way.

Our God is a God who cares intimately for us. Who hears our every need. We can find God’s care in quiet and stillness. We can find God’s care in the wisdom of people God sends into our lives.

God’s tender care is revealed in the book of Hosea when God says,

“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took them up in my arms; but they did 

not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”[5]

Naomi led Ruth out of a landscape of grief and hopelessness with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. And so God leads us.

If you are in a state of uncertainty, if doors are closing and you are unsure of the path out, if you are shaken by the loss of a loved one or the loss of a place, trust that our Good God cares for you. Pray for wisdom. Pray to the Lord, who is worthy of your trust, Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge.

[1] Poem by Adrienne Rich, Moyers, Bill, ed. The Language of Life. (New York: Doubleday, 1995) 349.

[2] Philippians 2:3-8

[3] Job 12:12

[4] James 1:5

[5] Hosea 11:3-4

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Cleanse Him with Water, Snow and Ice: an Islamic Prayer for the Dead

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In my childhood line of sight, his brown legs ended in thick leather sandals, the kind with big brass rings and tire-tread soles. He wore them tending the garden, by the pool.

I called him by his surname, Ishaq. The Ishaqs were the only family we knew when I was growing up, the weekend-in-the-cabin family, the camping family, the chicken curry family (Ishaq was Pakistani), the family with whom we shared Thanksgiving dinner.

If Ishaq wasn’t in the yard when my mother’s car pulled up, he might be reading the paper in his fake plycraft recliner, goldish tan, tire treads on the ottoman, the first thing I’d see when we stepped in the side door.

When his children, Serina and Rashid, and I were too much, he’d expel us from the room imploring us to “Go play in the traffic.” 

Circa 1971, ’72, ’73, ’74,  ad infinitum, I sat in a swiveling barstool across from the stove, flanked by Rashid on one side, Serina on the other. The three of us hitched and twisted in our chairs like roughly spinning tops. Ishaq and his wife Ann cooked chicken curry as we three watched, pan simmering, heady, foreign spices, splatter of oil. I can hear Ishaq saying, “Wonderful.” One night, my drunk mother started screaming he had put a chicken anus on my plate. I shrank in horror, feeling sorry for Ishaq. I knew little of chicken anuses, only gratitude that someone had cooked for me.  And I knew Ishaq was kind. I always knew this.

When he was pleased or amused by some turn in conversation, he’d say, “Beauty, beauty!” 

Circa 1975, I was mad at Rashid and threw his towel in the play pool. Ishaq chased me to swat my butt.

Circa 1979, swerving down a steep hill on my bike, a tennis racquet balanced on the handlebars, I took a terrible, high-velocity fall. That evening at the Ishaq’s, I noticed blood seeping from the flesh above my pubic bone. Nine or ten years old, I stood in the bathroom humiliated and unable to hide, dead silent as Dr. Ishaq cleaned up my privates. He weighed the need for stitches. He decided on a butterfly bandage.

In past years, I regularly ran into him at the grocery store. “Ishaq!” I’d call, “Dr. Ishaq!” a little louder. He face beamed, his arms spread wide. “OH-my-GOD!” he’d say—Pakistani accent—as if surprised every time, as if seeing me were the most wonderful thing in the world. He’d hug me. So much love.

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‘O Allaah, forgive and have mercy upon Ishaq, excuse him and pardon him, and make honorable his reception. Expand his entry, and cleanse him with water, snow, and ice, and purify him of sin as a white robe is purified of filth. Exchange his home for a better home, and his family for a better family, and his spouse for a better spouse. Admit him into the Garden, protect him from the punishment of the grave and the torment of the Fire.’

-Islamic funeral prayer

Choudhry Mohammed Ishaq, rest in peace. Thanks for the beauty.