Whatever and Anything
That the fires will continue or get worse
That the ones burning will take more lives
That we’ll run out of firefighters
That I won’t sleep tonight
That people I love will get sick
That I’ll get sick
That the air quality will prevent a walk again today.
That I won’t sleep tonight
Our nation is suffering
Our planet is suffering
A six-year-old died this week of corona virus
When I do sleep I have intense dreams that often wake me up
Hearing my son laugh at loud at the TV
Seeing my 15-year-old dog make it up the stairs
Phone calls with my mother and sisters
A decent night’s sleep
The pink lady flowers that refuse to stay in the ground despite lack of water, moles and gophers
The friend that keeps checking in
The stranger that waves from under the mask
Worries, Concerns, Realities, Joys, Grace
Those are my lists right now. If you wrote one today, you would have your own. None of our lists would look the same, and who’s to say when something is a worry instead of a concern, or a reality, or a joy or grace. The lines between all those categories are blurred and even our definitions of those categories have overlaps, not to mention that one person’s sorrow is another person’s joy.
There is so much to be concerned about that it’s strange to list any joys at all. People are losing jobs, people are dying, and now people are losing and fleeing from their homes as fire burns our most treasured wildlife to the ground. To take a minute to list any joy may seem odd, out of place, even self-indulgent. But if time and experience has taught us anything, it’s that compassion and gratitude are two shades of the same color. And joys, grace and gratitude transform from yesterday’s grand accomplishments into today’s simplest forms of everyday events, like food on the table, roofs over our head, and life itself.
Last week I saw two articles in two different newspapers. One said, “It’s time to ditch toxic positivity, it’s ok not to be ok.”
And then there was the other article, titled, “It’s ok to feel ok right now, even amid all the suffering, give yourself permission to be ok.”
Two articles, both giving us permission to either be ok or not, thank you very much, like we needed an article to tell us it’s ok to feel however we’re feeling.
The more accurate reflection of our lives would be a title like – “Feeling ok one minute and not ok the next? Welcome to the new normal.”
One moment we’re in it, feeling the weight of what’s happening, and the next we’re smiling, maybe even laughing with a loved one, or at the tv. And then there are some of us who feel both at the same time, mixing tears of sadness with smiles for the appreciation of the person who will listen.
At times, if you’re like me, you can begin to question your own stability. But as Rev. Paul Mowry reminded me this week on a phone call, so many of our Psalms run the full range of emotions – beginning with passionate complaints against God – only to end the psalm with love for God, a full journey within one psalm a matter of just a few verses.
That’s the experience of our lives during this time.
On Wednesday morning, we woke up to the smell of fires, some of us saw ash in our yards. When we met over Zoom for Bible study, the usual scripture felt unfitting for the occasion, so I asked the group what they would want to hear. The overall consensus was that they needed encouragement. Encouragement not to lose faith, to keep going, to stay strong. So we searched the scriptures and landed on the Philippians passage you heard.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
At first glance this might seem like the toxic positivity the first article was warning against. But Paul is writing from prison and in 2 Corinthians describes himself as "sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” It’s not that we’re supposed to rejoice through gritted teeth or in spite of circumstances. Instead, the word is rooted in the word for grace. It’s a calling to lean into grace, to recognize the moments of grace all around us at all times. That’s a tall order and it won’t always be easy, which is why it’s a greeting, an opening to a much larger recognition of what to do when we’re experiencing hardship, not instead of, or as a way to gloss over it.
Rejoice is one of those words we’ve come to think of, like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, running through the open field, arms wide open, smiling up to the sky with perfect teeth. But to be sorrowful yet always rejoicing is to recognize moments of grace within our suffering, our discord, our concerns, worries, the weight of a heavy heart we feel for others. That kind of rejoicing may look more more like a deep exhale, and a simple whisper of the words, thank you, just before you take your first bite of food.
Paul illustrates this further when he encourages gentleness. “Let your gentleness be evident to all,” he writes.
Gentleness is one of the fruits of the spirit, and a quality that many of us don’t think about very often, especially many men who may think of it as wimpy. Gentleness is a quality we embrace with when it comes to newborns, a sleeping toddler, fragile flowers we place in a vase or an injured bird we nurse back to health. But Paul calls on Christ’s followers to carry it as a sign that we are bearing the very presence of Christ within us. I encourage us all, like Paul, to wear gentleness as a practice, for those you interact with, but perhaps even more so for yourself as you move through your day.
Or in the words of a dear friend in LA who is a healer and an artist writes:
Envisioning a new future these days can sometimes take a lot of energy. The moment to moment efficient precision of that can be exhausting. I’ve been trying to remember to treat myself like I’m in preschool. Dance, sing, play, and eat snacks. Stay hydrated; go to the bathroom when I need to; arts and crafts.
That’s a kind of gentleness. And when we practice gentleness from within, it can’t help but exude outward, helping those around us who are in need of a tender love – the kind that comes from a good nurse, a good social worker, a good volunteer at an evacuation site, a good anything and anyone who embodies the love of Christ in the world.
I’m more than halfway through this sermon, but I’m only 2 verses in out of the nine in this scripture.Those of you in Bible study know that this is the only scripture I have memorized. And really only the next two verses. They were printed out and placed on my wall during my senior year of seminary after my separation. These verses served as a prayer when I couldn’t sleep then, and they still serve as a prayer when I can’t sleep now.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
I take comfort when some of you share your 3:00am moments with me, and I share mine with you. I take comfort that in those moments, some of you pray the 23rd Psalm, others go for a cold glass of milk, others for a warm glass of milk, some of you are taking care of spouses, summoned out of a dead sleep to help the other to the bathroom, some watch tv, or read a book. Whatever else happens to me at 3:00am, I am comforted and encouraged to know that we are in it together, and that God has graced us with the small comforts in those moments.
Jennifer Bowen Hicks, contributing writer for the Sun Magazine, wrote a beautiful essay titled “Night Cows.” She describes how these 40 cows showed up all of sudden on the campus at St. Paul, where she lives. The cows have tags with numbers and she uses the numbers as their names, developing a kind of relationship with them, especially on the walks she takes with her dog Toby, in the middle of the night, when she can’t sleep.
She ends the essay with this:
A few nights ago, in bed, I craved the weight of exactly one human hand on my lower back. It refused to materialize, so I got up and took Toby for a walk. It was late, and I walked and walked down the empty streets toward the cows. Thirty-seven was also awake, standing alone in the barn while the other cows slept. The sight of that insomniac calf brought me inexplicable comfort. I took her photo and sent it to a few friends, all of whom had seen pictures of this same cow before, standing oddly awake in the orange light. From the houses where they were sheltering, a few kind friends, still up and phone-addicted, responded immediately, as if they’d been waiting all week for another image of the strange, sleepless cow. On the walk home Toby rubbed his head against my thigh, and I snapped a photo of the moon.
“Friends,” Paul continues in is letter of encouragement, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Whatever and anything: moments of silence, capturing the moon, the sky in the middle of the night, the peace of what is normal or even boring. The simple meal at the table, the phone call with a friend who has nothing new to report, the cat bathing in the hot sun, the clothes fresh out of the dryer. None of these things will take away the pain of the those who are evacuating or losing their homes; none of these things will cure the loved one who is sick or bring back those who have died from Covid. But to rejoice in those moments is to be reminded of the God who is present. The God whose presence says – you’re ok, and it’s ok not to be ok. The God who says, if you’re in need of encouragement, reach out to someone with the same gentleness that Christ shows for others.
The peace of God is shared in those moments, and it surpasses all understanding as we trust that God brings order from chaos, healing from wounds, new life from death.