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Sermon: "Spiritual Practices for Social Distancing" by Pastor Margaret

Lent, as historically led in many Christian churches, has been a time of sacrifice, repentance, and fasting… it’s an experience of spiritual austerity, if you will. It is intended to be a season in which we draw closer to God, both through the things we let go of (like going out to eat) and through the things we take on (perhaps by giving the money we’ve saved to organizations that feed the hungry). But this year is a little unusual. Even the most dedicated and disciplined among us are finding that because of our societal response to the coronavirus, we have given up a great deal more than we had planned…

The litany of loss we are collectively enduring is lengthy. We’ve given up gathering in groups for worship and fellowship. Schools, businesses and organizations like this one have closed our doors and shifted as much of our functioning as possible to online means. The class of 2020 has seen everything from prom to graduation go flying past their eyes… though I must admit, the expansion of Senior skip day is pretty epic. Weddings, conferences, and vacations are cancelled. Families who are now together 24/7 are losing peace and quiet, patience and maybe their sanity. Those who live alone have lost access to companionship, except through the brave new worlds of FaceTime, Google Hangouts and Zoom. We’ve lost the predictability of our schedules and routines, including activities that bring health, stress-relief, and joy. Many workers have had their hours cut or lost jobs altogether. Healthcare professionals have seen their safety disappear as protective equipment like masks and gowns have grown as scarce as toilet paper. We have all lost the sense of security that comes from believing that if we feel okay, then we ARE okay. We don’t know if we have this virus… there is so much we just don’t know.

We are burdened by grief that many hesitate to name, much less fully feel. Some have heard the judgment “first world problems” so often that it is a knee-jerk reaction to discount our experiences as unimportant. To which I blow raspberries! Folks, this is HARD stuff. Much of it is scary. Some is even terrifying. And a great deal is emotionally devastating. These losses are REAL. And as your pastor, I am here to tell you that when we do not permit ourselves to grieve, we create a spiritual block that interferes with our capacity to live fully or faithfully. Inevitably, this creates a bill that will come due, sometime in the future, and demand to be paid when we least expect or can afford it.

Dear ones, our spiritual health and capacity for well-being during this challenging time depends on our willingness to let go of a couple more things… Give up self-reliance. Let go of the emotional defenses that make it look like we’ve got our acts together and can handle anything that life throws at us. Y’all, this is NOT the time to “fake it ‘til you make it.” These burdens are too heavy to bear all by ourselves. Beloved, now is the time to ask for help. So let us turn to God, who is our very present help in times of trouble and listen, perhaps as if for the first time, to these scriptural words of trust and comfort from the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

THIS is the Word of God, for the beloved people of God. Let us give thanks to God.

For many, these are familiar words, heard often in the context of funerals. They can act as a gateway to sorrow… giving us access to feeling and expressing our grief. Allow the tears, frustration, and upset. It’s ok to be human. It’s powerful to recognize where we are and name it… a valley of deep darkness… which we did not choose, but have found ourselves thrust into.

Here’s the thing about such valleys… we almost never get advance warning of their arrival in our lives. Hard times almost always occur as events that happen TO us. But we don’t have to be victims to them. Yes, it’s important to recognize and accept what’s happening. It’s necessary to feel the feelings and allow them to flow. AND, it is possible to discover the truth of the 23rd Psalm as a gift in our lives, for it describes how to get out of this valley and into the life of peace and abundance we yearn for.

The only way out? Is through…

Psalm 23 at its heart, is a confession of faith. To say “the Lord is my shepherd” is to proclaim that we are choosing God as our companion in life and that we are trusting God to guide us safely through the obstacles we find ourselves in. To name God as our shepherd is to say that God is God and we… well, we are sheep.

Some of you may remember the movie “Babe” from several years ago. One of the more entertaining quotes of that film came from a trio of mice regularly offering, “Everybody knows… sheep are stupid!” For most of us, this isn’t common knowledge. We don’t know much more about sheep than that they’re some of the animals in a Nativity scene. But I’m told that sheep NEED looking after. Without assistance, they get themselves into all kinds of trouble… drowning in even really shallow water… wandering away from the group looking for yummy eats and getting lost… following each other onto rocks they can’t navigate and into brambles that snag their wool so they can’t escape… then, of course, there are the insects that bring disease and predators seeking dinner… the hazards are seemingly endless. As a species, humans are obviously more intelligent than sheep, so please don’t get offended by the metaphor. It’s just that we DO find ourselves in rough patches that we can’t get out of either. For us to identify that we need a helper is to be appropriately humble, acknowledging that no matter how prepared or organized we are, it turns out we don’t have ALL our bases covered in this life. To put our trust into One who offers to be our trail guide in life… well, that’s just plain SMART.

Because to name GOD as the voice we’re choosing to listen to and the guide we are following means that we are dialing down the volume on other voices that occupy our time, attention and energy. You know the ones I mean… the voices that feed instead of calm our fears… the voices that value us only as consumers rather than beloved people with inherent worth.

Shepherd me O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

Intentionally listening for and attending to God’s voice, seeking the “paths of righteousness” the psalm speaks of is all about finding your groove with God. We find that groove by experimenting with different ways of seeking God’s presence. Just how still and undistracted do we have to be in order to notice God? Now that the pause button has been pressed on all our lives, we’ve got the opportunity to find out.

Shepherd me O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

What does it take to get the hamster wheel of anxiety inside our minds to slow down and even maybe come to a stop? We’re going to use this time we have now to explore Spiritual Practices for Social Distancing. Pastor Anna is going to be putting out some resources of different types of prayer for you to try over the next days and weeks. Molly King is organizing “Pop-Up Camp,” so be on the lookout for that this week as well. Some of the things I’ve spoken of today are truly spiritual practices, though they aren’t typically on the lists we often make.

Naming what is happening… telling the truth about “what’s so” without all the hype and hyperbole… stating simply as a matter-of-fact… here’s what’s going on in my life: is a powerful habit to get into the practice of. This past summer, after I was diagnosed with cancer, I found that every time I was able to just say to someone… I’ve received this diagnosis. Here’s what I know. Here’s what I don’t know. This is the plan at this time… just to state the facts simply was calming. And the more I was able to shift from Chicken Little panic-mode “I have cancer!” to a straight-forward delivery, the calmer I got.

Grief is also a spiritual practice. Though we cannot gather physically at this time, we CAN talk to each other on the phone or write letters to share in community both our pain and condolences. We can give and receive assurance. We can recite scriptures and prayers that bring us comfort. We can sing our faith, perhaps with this phrase I sang throughout every radiation treatment:

Shepherd me O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

Perhaps, for you, calm will come through a simple breath prayer – breathing in for 3 counts, holding for 3, then breathing out for 3… working your way up to 4 counts and then 5. Or maybe a simple scan of your 5 senses – what do I smell, taste, hear, see and touch – will help ground you to the present moment and allow you to BE. One of the gifts of this unexpected life-pause we are receiving is time to cultivate curiosity and explore new attitudes and ways of being.

My prayer is that you will increasingly find yourself capable of adapting the faith of the 23rd Psalm and apply it to your life as God shepherds you:

I may be struggling to make ends meet now, AND God will make sure I do not lack what I need.

I may not be sleeping well these days, AND God leads me to lie down and rest.

Disaster may strike and do damage, AND God is leading me to safety.

I might feel beaten up and bruised in this moment, AND God will restore me, body & soul.

Shepherd me O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life. Amen.

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