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At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”’” – Luke 13: 31-35
So much is out of our control. Ain’t that the truth! If we didn’t know that deep within our beings before, we certainly have learned that in these past few years.
Realizing the date this week, I decided to go back and read my sermon from March 15, 2020. That was the last Sunday that we had in-person worship for what ended up being almost 18 months. That was back in the very early days of the pandemic, before we really knew just how much was about to be out of our control. I remember that on the Friday I had an international student from Brazil arriving to stay with me for a few months, and that was the day that international travel was restricted. The student got in just before the closure.
In my sermon that day on March 15, 2020, I talked about how Nancy and I had gathered around my computer each day at 3:30 to watch the daily briefing with Bonnie Henry and Adrian Dix, who were just beginning to be a household name, so that we could learn what we could about Covid-19 and try to assess how things might need to be adjusted around here at the church and in the Thrift Shop to try to keep everyone safe. I might add that at that time two years ago, Nancy and I would be watching the briefings without masks on, because at that early time, people weren’t wearing them yet.
So this week on Thursday Nancy came to my office with her mask on, just before 12:30 and before she even said anything, I knew what she was going to ask – because I was about to ask her the same thing. Interesting ways that we find joy in these times. Let’s watch Bonnie and Adrian together, just like old times! So we sat, six feet apart and wearing masks, and watched the latest update because it felt like a significant one. And it was.
In the scripture reading today Jesus is getting frustrated with things not turning out the way he thinks they should – Herod is threatening his life. People are not listening or acting or accepting him and his message as he thinks they should. But he just goes about doing the things he does, teaching and healing people.
How many times, especially in the last few years have we felt like things were out of our control? Not just with the pandemic but also the extreme weather. I was just thinking the other day about the Murder Hornets back last year or was it the year before. Remember them?
Add to that forest fires and that time that Vancouver had the worst air quality in the world, increased racial tension, discovery of children’s remains on residential school grounds, threatened democracy in the US, now a war in Ukraine, not to mention the ongoing difficult struggles of our daily lives with deaths of loved ones, difficult diagnoses, broken relationships. I’m sure each of us had a moment or maybe many moments where it felt like one more thing would be the last straw. And then not only was there one more thing, but one more thing after that and then another thing after that! And somehow – here we are. And now as of this week – after many months of wearing masks in all indoor public spaces, it is no longer mandated. For some – this feels like a really good thing, for others it is a frightening prospect. For some who are immunocompromised, it feels too soon. For others, who use lip reading to help them communicate, it was not soon enough!
When things seem out of control for us, we hope that we can take comfort in knowing that God is in control. But if God is in control – what the heck is God thinking?! How does it make sense that a compassion-filled, grace filled God of Love would be in control of this mess we’ve been through over these last years. And when we see perfectly good and loving and kind and generous people be seemingly pummelled over and over again with tragedy and hardship – how does that make sense? I think for me, wanting to be in control of a situation includes the need to make sense of it and to try to fix it.
One of the reflections in the Good Enough book for this week talks about when the author is experiencing acute suffering, instead of trying to explain it or make sense of it, or blame it on God, she finds it freeing to acknowledge the truth of the situation.
I feel hurt, because it is painful.
I feel sad because it’s tragic.
I feel angry because it’s unfair.
She says: You are okay to feel what you feel. We need freedom to acknowledge the brutality of life without minimizing or pretending or justifying. We need not rush to defend God or delude ourselves.
It is terrible. And it is happening.
I was reading a couple of interviews that Kate Bowler had for some of her podcasts, and one of them was with the Christian author, Margaret Feinberg, who received a difficult cancer diagnosis when she was in her 30s. Margaret talks about how she was two weeks away from turning in a manuscript for her next book, which was on joy. She spent a year studying joy, and then received her diagnosis.
She talks about how she went from searching for joy in the relatively good times of life to searching for joy in the deep, dark, suffering, painful places of her life. But she said that before that experience she had never understood the connection between joy and grief. She said “when you learn to grieve well, you expand your bandwidth for joy.”
Sometimes when people we love are grieving or suffering, the way that we try to control the situation is by offering solutions, trying to fix their problem, telling them it is going to be okay. I don’t know about you – but when I’m struggling, the last thing I want to hear is that it is going to be okay! “Oh I’m sure it will all work out just fine.”
After my daughter Angela was born and before Heather was born I experienced two miscarriages. I remember people trying to console me by telling me “oh well, you have Angela and she’s healthy. Be thankful. And yes – I sure was thankful for that. But that was not a helpful comment at the time and when looking back, what I wanted right then was just someone to be there with me in my grief. Another friend told me that she had previously had a miscarriage too, and then she had another child after, and she just couldn’t imagine life without that other child, so she was thankful for her miscarriage. And while intellectually I knew (or at least hoped) that one day I would be in a place where I would be thankful for a healthy subsequent child, it also wasn’t helpful or what I needed at the time. Of course now – I can’t imagine my life without that child, my Heather. But I also know since having that experience myself, that I won’t say those words to someone in the midst of experiencing that loss because of the way that it felt when I heard them myself. But those words might provide comfort for others. People find comfort in different ways.
Just like some people find the phrase “everything happens for a reason” or “it’s all part of God’s plan” as comforting words – but others think – well then what have I done to deserve to be dealt such a bad hand? Or why is God punishing me?
It is hard to know what to say to people when they are experiencing difficult times, and some of us, myself included, have a tendency to want to fix things. I heard a great saying recently that I loved and think is helpful for those of us who have a tendency to want to find solutions for people:
Don’t just do something – stand there!
Sometimes the best thing that we can provide someone who is feeling like their life is spinning out of control, is our presence. We can reassure them, but not by saying “It’s going to be okay,” but reassure someone that, “I’m here, I love you. I’m not going anywhere. I’m with you in this.”
Don’t just do something – stand there!
Sometimes that might be the most loving thing that we can do.
When we are defined by the things we didn’t choose, by our bodies or our obstacles, or even our own limiting thoughts, there is a way to feel like you are not eclipsed by these unwanted realities, and that is love. Love, love that pours in from around us reminding us of who we are, and whose we are.
The act of loving, which shows us how to make our way forward, how to connect, how to dig deep into those difficult places and pull out something that we can offer as a gift.
We all have exactly what it takes to show up in the midst of people’s awful moments. Chances are there are people right in front of us suffering in silence. A big move, pending retirement, the loss of a job, an empty nest, a divorce or bad breakup, death of a loved one. A difficult diagnosis. It can feel intimidating to know what to do or say.
But they might just need exactly what we have to offer—ourselves. So if you’re bouncing between reaching out or not…say something. Even something as simple as acknowledging the painful situation with, “What a year you’ve had,” or gifting them a prayer shawl. We need love. We need one another to reflect back to us that we are so loved. We are loved. And when other people show up, and reflect God’s love back to us, it feels like enough.
Over the last few weeks in Ukraine we have seen what happens when people show up for each other. Amid the tragedy and inhumanity, we have seen stories of bravery and courage and solidarity from around the world. We have heard over the last few weeks about people from around the world booking Air BNBs in Ukraine with no intention of staying, just as a creative way to support Ukrainian people, or people who are purchasing digital art items from Ukrainians from the online craft marketplace, Etsy. This week I saw a Scottish tartan company who created a new tartan as a fundraiser. The company that I have completed virtual walking and running challenges with during this past year, came out with a challenge, virtually walking through Ukraine, and instead of sending us a medal, all of the money raised went to relief efforts in Ukraine. I have heard of people opening their homes all over the world to people fleeing the country. And of course prayers are pouring in from all over the world so that they will not feel as though they are walking alone.
So much over these last few years has seemed out of our control. Two years ago this week, when we had our last in-person worship for 18 months, I remember thinking that we would be off for a few weeks, maybe back by Easter. I wonder how I would have felt at the time if I had known that our first Easter back in the church would be 2022?
Somehow, through each new obstacle that seemed to be put in the way of the life we were used to, we got to this moment today. For many of us, these last few years have really taught us what we hold dear. What we have missed the most, and what we managed to find ways to not live without. A lot of that for many of us is personal connection. Despite the difficulties that we have been through, we have remained connected. We keep showing up for each other.
When people show up for us in our struggles, we are experiencing the presence of the God who shows up for us in our struggles – not to insert God’s almighty hand and fix things, but to walk along beside us, holding our hand, giving us strength and comfort.
When so much seems out of control, God is there. Not to fix it. Not to control it, but to be there. To hear our cries, to listen to us, to help us to remember and know that we are not alone and we are loved. Thanks be to God.