Forced Disciples – Lent 5
March 29, 2020
Rev. Fritz Nelson
A few weeks ago, back when everything seemed normal, back when we could pretend this virus was China’s problem or Italy’s problem, we read these words:
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart
With fasting, with weeping and with mourning
Rend your hearts, not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful.
Those four weeks – for we read those words, from the prophet Joel, on Ash Wednesday – seem like a lifetime ago. Boy have our hearts been rended. We have given up far more than we ever dreamed we would have to. Some of us have cried more than we’ve cried in years. And the mourning’s only begun.
A mentor of mine, Sr. Mary Ann Spangler called me a few days ago. “This virus is our Lenten discipline,” she told me. “It has forced us to fast in ways deep, hard and meaningful.” Self-isolation, after all, is one of the oldest of spiritual practices. Its also one of the hardest.
Certainly its taking its toll on all of us. I hear this as I call around the congregations. Five, semi-random, calls a day has become my own coronavirus discipline. I can report so far everyone I’ve talked to are doing as well as can be. Parents haven’t yet killed any children. Spouses haven’t yet killed each other. The economic stress is real, as some in our congregations are out of work. By far the hardest part is being separated, detached.
- My own family just put my father-in-law into a nursing home where we haven’t ever even seen the inside.
- Another family, connected with the congregations but not immediately a part of the congregations, felt blessed because they were able to be with their dying mother because everyone – except the mother – had the coronavirus and they’d elected to bring their mother home and quarantine together. But they grieve alone as the rituals of funeral and public mourning will have to wait.
- A grandmother was desperate because their grandchildren were sick and she wasn’t being allowed to help.
- A friend is sick in the hospital, with nobody allowed to visit.
Somewhere among these and other conversations I remembered the teachings on prayer of the Rev. Kirk Byron Jones. When we give something up for Lent, we’re supposed to fill the space it leaves with something else. We give up chocolate and use our cravings to recall Christ’s suffering on the cross. We give up going out to eat and donate the money we save to the hungry. We watch less television and use that time to read scripture.
Or we can take the spaces created by our imposed Coronavirus deprivation, and fill them with prayer. James, after all, calls us to pray in the spaces created by all aspects of life. In the space created by suffering, we should pray. In the space created by joy, we should pray. In the space created by sickness, we should pray. In the space created by national calamity – for Elijah was facing a national calamity when he prayed to shut the skies – we should pray. In our own time of calamity, of forced separation, of sickness, of weeping, of mourning, of hearts rent through no act of our own, we hear Christ’s call to prayer. Through prayer we can connect through the divine promise of peace. Through prayer we can connect with each other in powerful, healing ways, despite the separation of time, of space.
Which brings me back to Rev. Kirk Byron Jones. He’s a friend of a friend who led a retreat I attended some years ago. He’s a big guy, with a booming voice reminiscent of the popular revival preacher he was until one day, during a sermon, he ran out of words. His forced fast of silence led him on a journey to unravel the mysteries of prayer as a connecting force. “When you pray for someone,” he told us all those years ago, “visualize them.” Don’t just name them. Visualize them. Hold them in your mind, in spiritual space, like the hologram of Princess Leah broadcast by R2D2. There, if they are sick, you can lay hands on them and pray upon them the prayer of healing. There, in spiritual space, if they are mourning you can physically comfort them. There, in spiritual space, if they are crying you can wipe away their tears. There, in spiritual space, you can laugh with them, joke with them, be with them.
As you pray for those you love, Rev. Jones teaches, give them a hug. Rev. Jones loves hugs. That give yourself a hug exercise we did earlier – that’s from him too. The Holy Spirit operates in realms unknown to us, unlimited by time, space and distance. Through prayer we can connect without physically connecting, we can be community while remaining in isolation, we can hold each other close while remaining far away.
In a few minutes, after George and Ginny sing, we’re going to practice Rev. Jones’ technique of visualized prayer. So as you listen to George and Ginny, begin disengaging from whatever multi-tasking you’ve been doing, find a place to sit if you’re standing, and begin centering yourself for a time of prayer.