Lentiest Lent of Them All
4-5-20 Palm Sunday 2020 (Facebook)

Remember the good old days when giving up chocolate for the 40 days was considered a serious Lenten sacrifice?

Quaint times, weren’t they, because now we seem forced to let go of nearly everything.

Today is the beginning of Holy Week which was an emotional roller coaster for Jesus and his followers.

It may feel that you’re riding a roller coaster as you remain isolated at home, inundated by newsfeeds of ever-shifting estimates of just how bad and how long this pandemic may be.

I’ve found it helpful to step back as if looking at a roadmap of our evolving emotional responses; it helps me make sense of what’s going on and to prepare for decisions I will have to make.

Our first emotional response to COVID-19 was denial.

Remember a few weeks ago?

Back in January, World Health Organization was warning of a pandemic, but our official government position here was, “no problem”.

Even after word got out, a lot of us blissfully thought that isn’t going to happen, not in the 21st Century.

Not to us – that’s denial.

But you know if it hadn’t been Corona virus it would be something else – biowarfare, nuclear war, possibly a far worse, airborne pathogen.

COVID-19 has revealed how our institutional denial has left us unprepared without stockpiles of medical supplies – or even a cohesive plan for what to do.

Jesus had tried to prepare his friends for what was coming, but they wouldn’t hear of it.

Remember how Peter rebuked Jesus after he warned what was coming?

Matthew 16:22b “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

Even after Jesus prayed in the Garden of Olives that he might not have to suffer the crucifixion, the disciples didn’t get it.

They just wondered why Jesus was so bummed-out.

They were in denial.

After denial, people tend to move to dismissal.

OK, no denying it’s real, but it’s no big deal.

Life can go on as usual – we just have to wash our hands.

There’s nothing to worry about; everything will go back to normal in two or three weeks.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem with the crowds waving palm branches his disciples could reassure themselves that he’d just been in a funk … look, it would all turn out okay after all.

Then when reality about Corona virus began to set in, some moved to defiance.

Defiance is when some people dig in and say no one has the right to tell me what to do.

Think of the COVID-19 parties or Jerry Falwell calling his students back to Liberty University despite all the warnings.

But most of us now shake our collective heads at the stupidity of defiance as we moved to the stage of disruption.

That’s where many of us have been this past week.

Disruption accepts that this is real, that my life has been turned upside down.

Things I valued, goals I had, the structure of my life I had just a month ago have all changed.

What’s interesting is that we seem to be moving through these stages together – which means that many of us are about to arrive at the next stage, Distress.

We accept that this is a dangerous situation, all ages are at risk, there is no magic bullet that’s going to fix this any time soon.

In distress we look around and say we don’t want any part of it.

Anxiety spreads, our life options seem to close.

Think of Peter at Jesus’ trial.

Overcome by fear, three times he publicly denied even knowing his friend.

But here’s the thing: distress is a transitory stage that lands us at a decision point.

We are at a point of decision – which way will we go – because we now choose between despair and determination.

Despair is the default setting for humans because we are wired for what psychologists call negativity bias – meaning that our brains sort for what is wrong and then take us to worst-case scenarios.

Then our brain releases a burst of adrenaline and other hormones so that we can either fight it or flee from the danger.

That saved our ancestors living on the Serengeti Plain where quick reaction to a threat became the difference between life and death.

But for us, every news update just feeds our anxiety that we have no way to relieve.

Despair sucks us into depression, hypochondria, and family bickering.

It is miserable way to live that is much easier to avoid than to climb out of later.

Now, this situation is likely to exist far longer than people had been estimating, so unless we take deliberate steps now toward physical, emotional and spiritual health we will end up there.

Determination is where we need to be.

We arrive at determination after we choose to rise above despair.

To be clear – I’m not saying that we don’t face our feelings.

Determination is not “positive thinking”.

Determination is not painting a pious smile over our anguished face.

Determination is facing what’s real while committing to God’s grace being present.

When you pray, tell God how you’re feeling: scared, abandoned, overwhelmed.

Whatever.

We’ve talked about this dozens of times … God wants real, authentic relationship with you, and so God will meet you where you are at.

Determination faces what is and says, yes, this is real, this is hard I’m afraid, this will be long-lasting … and with God’s grace we will make (it) through this together.

Walter Brueggemann is a well-known preacher and professor in the Lutheran tradition.

He once said to a group of aspiring preachers, before you open a Bible commentary, before you think of a sermon illustration, before you write a single word, open the newspaper and read about the state of the world.

Read what humans had done to each other overnight. Look at what we’ve done to our planet.  Read about corporate power.

Now, if you can still find some faith and hope, you are ready to begin your sermon.

I often am discouraged and disgusted by what we all do to one another and to our planet.

God may be, too.

But I also know that God is the power of healing and hope, and as I focus on His presence then I know I can make it through anything.

You may remember Barbara Brown Taylor writing, “To lie flat on the ground with the breath knocked out of you is to find a solid resting place. You told yourself you would die if it ever came to this, but here you are. You cannot help yourself and yet you live.”

Determination is a choice.

The choice to seek God’s grace knowing that on that power we can make it through this together.

Determination in today’s world starts with choices of small, basic things because for most of us our world has shrunk to the size of our living space and maybe a few people with whom we may share it.

More than ever, emotions are contagious because you are on top of each other all day.

The other night I felt some anger building inside me I as started feeling claustrophobic and agitated by noise coming from multiple TVs and phones.

And I caught myself winding up to give everyone the cold shoulder … a passive-aggressive way of telegraphing that I was not a happy camper.

But, I’m glad to say, I caught myself because I had an image of my upset spreading to Vivienne or Tim or Kerstynn, who would then have to carry that feeling or unload it on someone else in their own way.

So, I paused before my immature reaction spread.

What helped was that I had just read something written by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh:

“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”

Most of us have come to realize that things will never be the same … but God is with us as today as much as He was last Christmas, and will be with us this time next year no matter what our “new normal” may look like.

That the promise of Hebrews 13:8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

This Thursday – Maundy Thursday – is the night we remember Jesus’ final supper in the upper room.

The disciples sensed that everything was changing, which Jesus didn’t deny, but he said to just stay close and follow him – just remember his teachings, remember his calm, remember his example of servanthood.

He responded to their fears by saying (John 14:6) I am the way the truth and the life.

That verse has often been a point of contention – who’s going to heaven and who’s not.

Jesus would be dismayed at those interpretations … but in any case, for right now, his way and his truth will lead us to true life through whatever uncertainty or darkness may come.

I remind you that after Jesus’ crucifixion, his disciples were back in the upper room, huddled together in fear of arrest.

It was then that Jesus walked right through the locked doors to be with them all.

John 20:19-20 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Jesus knows no walls, no locked doors – not theirs, not yours.

Jesus seeks to be with you right now.