If I had a crystal ball, this is what I’d see…
DATELINE – March 2025 – DES MOINES, IOWA. The Iowa Department of Public Health today confirmed that Iowa is in the grip of a strong surge in Coronavirus cases due to the rapid spread of the Beta Omega variant of the disease. This makes Iowa the latest of the midwestern states that are watching as hospitals fill and cases rise by as much as 40 percent. “Based on the data from Belgium where the Beta Omega variant first appeared, we are in for a six-to-eight-week storm of new cases and rising numbers of deaths,” says Dr. Joy Uber Angst, PhD, epidemiologist at the University of Iowa.
As 2021 sputters it’s way to a disappointing end in most categories, I think it’s safe to say that we all hope 2022 turns in some new directions. I’m hoping for some sort of pandemic progress (I’m past wishing for a resolution). I’m hoping that people somehow stop being divisive, silly, and just plain mean. These are beyond my control, of course. There are traditions to observe, however. “Good-luck foods” like pork, black-eyed peas with greens, cornbread, grapes, and pickled herring, should then be on the table New Year’s Eve. Good luck is sure to follow!
For me, one of the most moving songs about the Nativity of Our Lord was popularized in 1955 when Mahalia Jackson recorded a song by Robert MacGimsey called Sweet Little Jesus Boy.
Sweet little Jesus Boy --
They made you be born in a manger.
Sweet little Holy Child --
Didn’t know who You was.
Didn’t know You’d come to save us, Lord;
To take our sins away.
Our eyes was blind, we couldn’t see,
We didn’t know who you was.
Presence has taken on a new dimension for me this Advent. As we approach Christmas Eve worship, I have memories of last Christmas. At the church, we were filming videos of our worship services ahead of time so that they would be available to the congregation to worship at home on Christmas Eve. We had a presence with each other during worship, although it was virtual. I am grateful that worship could be made available in this way, and I am grateful that we can continue to stream live worship. However, when I think about being totally present to each other when the faith community gathers for worship, there is the stark reality that something is missing when we worship virtually.
The church became very real to me when I was about nine years old. My mom had cancer and was in and out of the hospital, often for long periods, for the better part of a couple of years. During that time, my dad had three young sons to take care of (I was the oldest) while he worked a demanding job. The church became real in the faces of people who picked us up on weekends so my dad could be with mom. The church became real in meals dropped off at the house. The church became real in the way we were all embraced and supported by people who cared for us. The body of Christ was alive and moving in our lives. The beloved community was active and sharing God’s love with us.
It has been a little over a year since my Aunt Dorothy died. She was the last relative of my parent’s generation. Dorothy and her husband never had any children so their nieces and nephews were very special to them. Dorothy lived to be 104 years old. For some, living that long would be challenging. For Dorothy it was in some respects, as I remember her saying that she really had to work hard on staying focused on the “here and now;" it was so much easier to drift into the past. Yet, even with this struggle she gave thanks for God for each day and for the people in the care center who provided her care and security. She was like that. I would describe her as a thankful person. What a wonderful legacy to leave, that of being thankful. Her dying words to her nieces and nephews who gathered at her bedside were, “Love everyone, and be thankful.”
The mayor has lit the city Christmas tree. Black Friday and Christmas sales are beginning. All of this before some folks have gotten the Jack-O-Lanterns off the stoop and before I know what we’re cooking for Thanksgiving. It is forty-five days until Christmas Day, and I do understand the necessity of planning – we are already busy with preparing for Christmas Eve and beyond. Yet I can’t help wondering what we will miss as we zoom through the next seven weeks straining ahead to a day not yet here.
As we approach Reformation this weekend, we remember Martin Luther as the reformer of the Church who unintentionally led to the formation of Lutheranism. Martin Luther saw injustice in the church and took steps not to form a denomination, but to reform the Church of the day. It was a time of momentous change. Changes that came with the price of threatening his life. Yet, Luther persisted.
There are certain creatures (like sharks, for instance) that die if they don’t keep moving. I think that organizations, including congregations, are the same. A congregation that stops being propelled by its mission (Share God’s Love) toward embracing its vision (to be the open arms of Jesus Christ) soon settles into a death spiral, weighed down by traditions, anxiety, fear. To keep moving spiritually, an individual must constantly be open to reflection – being honest about who we are and what is keeping us from living the Divine image of God; repentance – turning away from the fear and brokenness of our lives back to God; renewal – making the changes necessary to grow more fully into our life.
Over the last couple of months, I’ve learned that several pastors I know and love have either left a congregation or retired from ministry far earlier than planned because they have no more to give. The pandemic and all the other cultural forces that make our society uncivil and adversarial have left them, as one colleague put it, unable to keep turning the other cheek.