You\’re Not Alone

“Those who put their strength in you are truly happy; pilgrimage is in their hearts. As they pass through the Baca Valley, they make it a spring of water. Yes, the early rain covers it with blessings.”
Psalm 84:5, 6 (Common English Bible)
              Recently the crew of the Caribbean Princess cruise ship produced a music video, You’re Not Alone Princess Cruise Family. As the cruise industry continues to navigate a difficult environment brought on by this worldwide pandemic, crewmembers – particularly those still onboard their ships – are growing increasingly discouraged. My daughter, Rachael, is among those who have been onboard for over fifty days now. The discouragement is deepen by the vitriolic coverage the press has given the cruise business. True, passengers and crewmembers of cruise ships have become ill from this virus, but so have residents of Detroit, New York City, and Rome. Pain and discouragement is felt wherever this virus has set-up residence.
              The music video produced by the crew of the Caribbean Princess seeks to change the emotional and spiritual tone that is swiftly moving through the Princess Cruise family – and, indeed, throughout the industry. Swamped by discouragement, pain, and considerable dislocation from home and family, this video creatively joins the family of those who cruise, both passengers and crew, together with hope. Everyone is reminded that though they are separated by sea, each one belongs to a family. More, there is encouragement that if each person holds onto one another through this storm, they will emerge wiser and stronger. The pointed message of the video – simply stated – is, let’s make something positive emerge from this.
              Psalm 84 captures the moment when the people of Israel are similarly discouraged, wandering in an arid place between Egypt and the Promised Land. Forty years is a long time to have a promise of returning home, yet, day after day, they wake-up in a sea of wilderness. “Baca Valley” refers to a poplar or balsam tree (2 Sam 5:23-24), which is known to grow in arid places. It is easy to imagine that the women and men and children who are in this arid and inhospitable place would have their spirits shot to pieces, their faith wrecked, their morale broken, and lives unraveled by cynicism. Over time, personal deterioration is inevitable.
              But notice that this description fails. Rather, the people of God are “truly happy.” That is because they have chosen not to focus on their present circumstances, which are dire. They choose to keep their focus on God. That change of focus strengthens them and the arid place becomes as though it is covered with springs of water. By a change of focus, they have determined not to be a casualty of an inhospitable environment. It is as though they are singing the lyric of the Princess music video: “You will never feel like you’re alone. You are never sailing on your own. We are in this together from the day we left our homes. We will stick together, fight through every storm.”



“We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, 
for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Romans 8:28 (Common English Bible)
              Recently, the captain of the Ruby Princess, of the Princess Cruise Line, made this disembarkation announcement to the crew who were leaving the ship due to the disruption of cruising by the COVID-19 virus: “This invisible virus has incredible power. We can’t see it but we see the results of what it is doing. One thing, though, this virus cannot do; one thing in this virus that makes it imperfect. This virus can’t break us. This virus actually has one design flaw. It makes us stronger.” From our struggle and pain with this pandemic, communities are coming together, great resilience is emerging, and people are experiencing strength unnoticed before. We are becoming the kind of people and the kind of world that the power and goodness of God has set out to make from the beginning of time.
              A disruption is underway – a disruption that is deeper and more profound than the economic and political narratives that receive nearly uninterrupted coverage in the news. The sheer magnitude of this crisis is forcing a personal and cultural “repentance” or reexamination of those things that have ultimate worth and value in our lives. A strong economy failed to protect us from the ravages of this unseen virus.  Political ideology is powerless to turn back the pain, suffering, and death left in its path. Misplaced priorities and values are exposed as having insufficient value for adding richness and depth to life. What remains are the questions as old as the scriptures – questions of purpose and meaning and love.
              First responders have brought fresh clarity to the values of compassion, cooperation, and confidence in an unseen power and strength to change lives and communities. New Yorkers, and other municipalities, celebrate these values each day by stepping onto balconies and the street to applaud the new heroes among us as they struggle to save lives impacted by this virus. This crisis presents an opportunity to build a different life moving forward, a life where we immerse ourselves more deeply into the lives of our spouses and children, a life where we seek opportunities to help vulnerable people in need of support and love, a life that is less about placing self first and more about caring for our neighbor.
              A pastor of another generation, Phillips Brooks, wrote that we should not pray for easy times. Rather, pray for strength, courage, and grace enough to meet hard times and come off victorious. If we long for a return to the normal that was prior to this virus we are already defeated. The apostle Paul would urge, rather, that we keep our eyes fixed upon the living God who is at work in the midst of this pandemic, working for our good. This pandemic is not a good thing by any measure. Nor is it the work or will of God. But scripture bears witness that God was always present in the very center of crisis, working to bring God’s people through stronger, more confident, and with a new appreciation for what really matters in life.


How Shall We Rebuild?

The following meditation was written by Doug Hood’s son,
Nathanael Hood, MA, New York University
“Isn’t this the fast I choose – releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, 
setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke?  
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, 
covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family?”
(Isaiah 58:6,7 Common English Bible)
Their bonds broken and shackles shattered, the ancient Judeans returned from their Babylonian captivity to find Jerusalem a wasted ruin.  The city of the Davidic kings, Solomon’s Temple, and the Ark of the Covenant, the refugees found this former center of Jewish religious, political, and social life a shell of its former self, destroyed, depopulated, profaned.  The Holiest of the Holies violated, the treasuries looted, the buildings smashed, life could never go back to normal for the Jewish people.  And indeed the exile permanently changed the face of their religion.  Once a faith that acknowledged the existence of other gods, this new Judaism was doggedly monotheistic.  Once a people ruled by kings, now they were led by scribes, sages, and priests.  And where once the thought of a religion without a central temple was unthinkable, now they praised a God who faithfully followed his children throughout the world.  As prominent Israeli scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann once wrote: “With the exile, the religion of Israel comes to an end and Judaism begins.”
The fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah offers us a glimpse into the metamorphosis of post-exilic Judaism.  While the entire book is traditionally attributed to the 8th-century BCE prophet, the last ten chapters are now believed by scholars to be a collection of anonymous oracles recorded three hundred years later during the reconstruction of Jerusalem.  The portrait they paint is not always comforting.  Much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time who competed to see who could pray the loudest in public, this chapter depicts the wealthy ostentatiously mourning and praying for restoration while ignoring the poor and needy among them.  Specifically, the wealthy are shown to brag about their extravagant ritualistic fasting where they starve themselves in sackcloth and ashes.  To which the oracles respond with a simple and direct how dare you?  Isn’t the fast that God demands the salvation of the helpless among them?  The literal feeding of the hungry, the literal housing of the homeless, the literal clothing of the naked?  The God of this new Judaism cared not for their theatrics.  Instead, this new god who was God demanded concrete, literal solutions to economic and social injustice among his children.  Only then could Jerusalem truly be rebuilt.
Almost two and half thousand years have passed since the time of Isaiah, and the world finds itself again in a time of devastating crisis.  As the Coronavirus pandemic forces the international community into a global quarantine, it feels like things will never be the same again.  The wealth and prosperity we assumed would protect us have proved worthless as even the richest countries with the best medical resources have been devastated.  The stories we hear in the news are horrific: farmers forced to let food rot in their fields; doctors and nurses forced to care for the diseased without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE); millions – including this writer – being forced into unemployment with no lasting economic safety net.  We hear of the homeless in Las Vegas being made to sleep in parking spaces in parking lots so they won’t infect each other.  We hear of the government wasting millions on Blue Angels flyovers to honor the very healthcare workers they refuse to properly fund.  And we hear of people like Leilani Jordan, a 27-year-old grocery store clerk in Maryland who died after being forced to work without gloves or hand sanitizer.  When her family received their daughter’s last paycheck – literal blood money – they found that they’d lost their little girl for only $20.64.
Much like the post-exile Judeans, we find ourselves on the threshold of total societal transformation.  Things won’t go back to normal because things can’t go back to normal.  Too many systems have been proven ineffective, too many laws have been proven useless, too many people have been proven expendable.  Not only can’t things go back to normal, things shouldn’t go back to normal.  Not, at least, if we want to honor God, the God who demanded the end of useless fasting and the implementation of social and economic reforms in the fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah.  How do we rebuild after the quarantine ends?  By working to ensure there are no homeless to stuff into parking lots, by fighting to properly equip healthcare professionals and first responders, by tearing down the systems of old to make sure nobody dies for a $20.64 paycheck ever again.


The Continuing Work of the Resurrection

“May the God of peace, who brought back the great shepherd of the sheep, our Lord Jesus, 
from the dead by the blood of the eternal covenant, 
equip you with every good thing to do his will, 
by developing in us what pleases him through Jesus Christ. 
To him be the glory forever and always. Amen.”
Hebrews 13:20, 21 (Common English Bible)

            The first Christians never preached the resurrection simply as a once and done miracle, as Jesus’ defeat of death and his return to his disciples. They always proclaimed the resurrection as the work of a living God that continues to work in the lives of women and men in each generation. The same creative energy that raised Jesus from the tomb remains available for each of us, not only to raise us to new life following our death, but grants us a divine purpose to pursue and equips us with talent and strength to accomplish it. As the author of Hebrews states, God is continually “developing in us what pleases him through Jesus Christ.” We are God’s continuing work of the resurrection.
            What this announces is that there is no present darkness that can extinguish the light of the resurrection, no despair that isn’t answered with sudden hope. The celebration of Easter is more expansive that the remembrance of new breath filling the nostrils of Jesus one morning two thousand years ago. The celebration of Easter is claiming God’s active presence today that calls to us, equips us, and sends us into a broken world to complete God’s redemptive purposes. Once estranged from God by our rebellious nature, God wrestles with us until we once again embody and reflect God’s perfect love and makes us apprentices with God redeeming and restoring all of creation.
            Frederic Henry is the protagonist in Ernest Hemingway’s novel, A Farewell to Arms. An American ambulance driver in Italy in 1915, Frederic wrestles with belief and doubt in a living, active God. During one poignant conversation with a Roman Catholic priest, Frederic questions what it means to love – to love God or anyone. The answer sparkles on the page, “When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.”[i] Easter is an invitation to look closely again at God’s love for us – demonstrated on the cross of Jesus – that we might return that love with a “wish to do things for, to sacrifice for, to serve.” Our own immediate resurrection is from the death of selfishness to a life of selflessness and generosity.
            These are tumultuous days. Covid-19 haunts each of us as we tremble in our quarantine spaces. We fear that the power of darkness may ultimately defeat our dreams. Doubt paralyzes and frantically we seek hope from any quarter. However, Easter reminds us that God has already faced evil at its worst, met its challenge, and destroyed its claim on us. Life never again has to be lived in helplessness, maimed, impoverished, and defeated. That is why the author of Hebrews is able to say, with a sturdy conviction, “To him be the glory forever and always. Amen.”


[i]Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms(London: The Folio Society, 2015), 68.


When God Seems Distant

The following meditation is from Doug Hood\’s book,
Nurture Faith: Five Minute Meditations to Strengthen Your Walk with Christ,

“I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 8:38a (Common English Bible)
Tommy Lasorda, former manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, tells about an experience he had in church. One Sunday he was in Cincinnati for a ball game against the Reds. That morning he went to early morning Mass and happened to see the Red’s manger there. They were old friends and sat beside each other during Mass. Afterward, the Red’s manager said, “Tommy, I’ll see you at the ballpark. I’m going to hang around a little.” Lasorda said that when he reached the door, he glanced back over his shoulder. He noticed that his friend was praying at the altar and lighting a candle. He said, “I thought about that for a few moments. Then, since we needed a win very badly, I doubled back and blew out his candle.”i Though misguided, what a powerful demonstration of faith in God’s presence and activity!
Countless people today long for that deep confidence in God’s presence and activity in their lives. God seems distant to them. They plod through each day, fearful, anxious, and burdened with uncertainty. Some may remember once having a close relationship with God but that was a long time ago. Prayers seem to never rise higher than the ceiling – and that is when we even feel like praying! The good news is that this is not an uncommon experience in the Christian faith. Just as people can grow apart in relationships with one another, so we can drift away from God. As Thomas Tewell once said to me, the difference is that in human relationships, both parties contribute to the distance. But, in a relationship with God, the reality is that we drift away from God. God never drifts away from us.
In those moments when God seems distant, what are we to do? Perhaps an experience I had this past week will help. My daughter, Rachael, is in Norway – a studio photographer for the Holland America Cruise Lines. It’s not uncommon for Rachael to work twelve and fourteen hour days. Wi-Fi is limited and with her long hours it is difficult to “connect” with her by telephone or by other means in real time. Just this week, Rachael reached-out to me via Facebook Messenger. She said that for a limited time she was available to receive a phone call from me and that she really would like me to call. Immediately, I moved something that was already on my calendar to another time and placed the call. Do you see what happened? Suddenly, my greatest desire was to speak with my daughter. To do so, I had to make the time.
We reconnect with God the same way. We move beyond our desire to be close with God and carve-out time from our busy lives to simply be still in God’s presence. We open the Bible and read expectantly, asking God to speak powerfully through the words that we read on the page. We learn from our reading more about God, about God’s good desires for us, and we learn what God requires of us. We spend time together with God. And we listen; we listen deeply in the silence following our reading to the hunches, the promptings, and the direction we sense from God. As we respond positively, the distance we once felt from God begins to close. 

i William R. Bouknight, The Authoritative Word: Preaching Truth In A Skeptical Age. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001) 30.