Roman Roads: How Long, O Lord?

 

 

Read: Psalm 13

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? (Psalm 13:1-2a, NRSV).

“How long?” Some version of that question is on everyone’s mind these days.

  • How long until I can go visit my grandma?
  • How long until I can go back to work?
  • How long until we can hug each other?
  • How long until we can go to church, have a party, eat at a restaurant….?
  • How long until we can plan the wedding, the graduation, the funeral….?
  • How long until we find a vaccine?

Me, I’m just looking forward to taking a walk. Here in Rome, we have been in a strict state of lockdown for the last two months. The only time I am allowed outside my apartment is to walk to the grocery store. That’s a five minute walk—seven if I live dangerously and take an indirect route. But next week, the restrictions are due to be relaxed. We still can’t travel far, we still can’t eat at a restaurant, and we still can’t get a haircut. But glory, hallelujah—we can finally take a walk!

I have to admit, I watched the news coverage from the States this week with a fair amount of incredulity. Civil liberties notwithstanding, there is something deeply disturbing about the image of armed protesters lining the gallery of Michigan’s state capitol building (Michigan Protests). As political analysts have pointed out, some of these events are being fueled by conservative advocacy groups. But to be fair, we need to acknowledge the genuine frustration that is being expressed—albeit inappropriately.

It’s one thing to be frustrated with your governor; it’s another thing to be frustrated with your God.

But part of the “good news” in Psalm 13 is that we are encouraged to express our frustration to God. We’re probably going to want to leave our guns at home, but confrontation is still on the agenda. The psalmist’s tone is barely even polite. “How long, O LORD?” he/she demands. “Will you forget me forever?” Notice that this outburst is pointed, but not specific. The good news about that is that it invites us to fill in the blanks with specifics of our own. When the psalmist talks about having “sorrow in my heart all day long,” we get to name our sorrows. When the psalmist complains about generic enemies, we get to shake a very specific enemy virus in God’s face.

Complaints then turn to petitions. “Fix this!” the psalmist demands. This is our cue to enumerate all the things we would like God to fix. Don’t hold back. God has time. One small caveat might be in order, however. I have always found it wise to conclude my list with, “Thy will be done.” We don’t always know what is in our own best interest, after all. (Some of the requests I made in high school were particularly ill advised…)

Now comes the hard part: praise. Yes—praise. It may be the last thing we are in the mood for at this point, but almost all of the Bible’s laments end up there. “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation,” the psalmist says. It might feel a little false at first, but even a half-hearted effort may move us toward trust. It’s a way of saying, “I know you’ve got this.”

Only God knows the answers to all of our “how long?” questions. But psalms like this one teach us how to lay our frustration at God’s feet. At the very least, we’ll feel better for it. And who knows—God may respond in surprising ways.

Ponder: Write your own lament using the pattern of Psalm 13: Protest/Petition/Praise. Then put your lament away where you can find it a month later…a year later…a decade later. You may be surprised at the ways God has responded to your prayers.

Listen to Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen by Mahalia Jackson. Note the way this lament leans toward praise at the end.

 

 

 

 

Introduction to the Roman Roads Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Rome, Italy. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is turning out to be something less than a “Roman Holiday.” While a pandemic was not part of my original itinerary, it does lend a unique perspective to my writing these days. I offer these reflections along with my prayers for the health and safety of our world. May God bless and keep you all!

Roman Roads: The Perils of Propaganda

 

Read: Psalm 91

You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday (Psalm 91:5-6, NRSV).

This past week we all experienced a jaw-dropping example of propaganda. That this pernicious example originated with the president of the United States makes it more jaw-dropping still. Although he later claimed to be speaking sarcastically, his breathless—and irresponsible—remarks about the possible benefits of injecting disinfectant to kill the coronavirus sent public health officials and bleach manufacturers scrambling to clean up his mess. (For details, see NPR April 24, 2020)

Propaganda is defined as “information—especially of a biased or misleading nature—that is used to promote a point of view.” While we are used to encountering this in the political sphere, it haunts the halls of theology as well. It can do just as much damage there—even when it’s wielded by well-meaning believers.

Make no mistake: bad theology can kill you. What’s worse, it can kill other people.

Here is a case in point: Psalm 91. I have lost count of the times I have heard people reference this psalm as a source of comfort in the midst of the pandemic. Don’t misunderstand; I draw comfort from this psalm, too. But comfort must be derived very carefully. It will not do to rub this psalm like a rabbit’s foot, thinking that it by doing so we are somehow magically protected from the “deadly pestilence.”

What, precisely, does this psalm promise? Refuge and protection, certainly. How else are we to interpret these words?

Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place,

No evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent (vv. 9-10).

Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.

When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble,

I will rescue them and honor them.

With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation (vv. 14-16).

So, yes—these words pack some powerful comfort in the midst of a pandemic. At the very least, they promise that God will honor the covenant relationship that exists with those “who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of Almighty” (v. 1). From a Christian perspective, that sense of covenant identity is reinforced by the knowledge that “neither death, nor life…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Does that mean that anyone who “claims” such verses is immune from catching COVID-19? Of course not. To insist on this is to hold God hostage to the limits of our own understanding. Jesus had some stern words for Satan when the latter tried to tempt him with verses from this same Psalm (see Matthew 4:5-7 and Luke 4:9-13). “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” Jesus cautioned, and Satan went scurrying away.

We also might want to consider what such claims do to our neighbors. First, there is the risk that our “rabbit’s foot religion” may actually expose others to the virus. Secure in our own invulnerability, we may rush to church or to the store, leaving our masks and our brains behind. But we should also consider what our over-confident claims imply for those who have succumbed to the virus. Was their faith insufficient? I would hate to argue that line of logic with the families of all the believing priests, pastors, and health-workers who have died in the line of duty these past weeks.

As most of you know, I have been riding out the pandemic in Rome, Italy. I first encountered the “Via di Propaganda” street sign when I was looking for a short-cut to the Spanish Steps. Why was I surprised when I got lost? I should have known that “Propaganda Street” never works as a shortcut. If we want to get somewhere good, we have to do the hard, humble work of considering facts and weighing consequences. There are no shortcuts. The longest way around is still the surest way home.

Ponder: Have you ever heard someone “claim” Psalm 91 in a way that made you uncomfortable? If so, what was that discomfort about?

Pray:

I am content, O Father to leave my life in Thy hands,

believing that the very hairs upon my head are numbered by Thee.

I am content to give ever my will to Thy control,

believing that I can find in Thee a righteousness that I could never have won for myself.

I am content to leave all my dear ones to Thy care,

believing that Thy love for them is greater than my own…

to Thee, O God, be glory forever. Amen.

From “A Diary of Private Prayer” by John Baillie (1886-1960),

Scottish Theologian and Professor

 

Listen:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction to the Roman Roads Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Rome, Italy. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is turning out to be something less than a “Roman Holiday.” While a pandemic was not part of my original itinerary, it does lend a unique perspective to my writing these days. I offer these reflections along with my prayers for the health and safety of our world. May God bless and keep you all!

Roman Roads: Lullabies Lost and Found

 

Read: Isaiah 40:1-11

The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8, NRSV).

This was the view from the window of my tiny, two room apartment in Rome the other night. Though I wasn’t clever enough to catch it on camera, there was a moment when the clouds draped over the bottom half of the moon’s face. Oh, for pity’s sake, I thought. Even the moon is wearing a mask. It was hard to know whether to laugh or cry at that point.

Still, the sight inspired me to search out a lullaby that a friend had sent me a few days before:

The moon is risen, beaming,
The golden stars are gleaming
So brightly in the skies;
The hushed, black woods are dreaming,
The mists, like phantoms seeming,
From meadows magically rise.

How still the world reposes,
While twilight round it closes,
So peaceful and so fair!
A quiet room for sleeping,
Into oblivion steeping
The day’s distress and sober care.

There is something so soothing about that image of the hushed world as a “quite room for sleeping.” And God knows, we could all use a bit of oblivion from “the day’s distress and sober care.”

But then the lullaby takes what—to modern ears—is a less comforting turn:

Grant that, without much grieving,
This world we may be leaving
In gentle death at last.
And then do not forsake us,
But into heaven take us,
Lord God, oh, hold us fast!

Ours is an age that does not dwell much on death. People rarely die at home any more, and when they do, their bodies are whisked off to funeral homes. In most places in the world, infant mortality is—thank God—much lower than in previous centuries. Perhaps these are some of the reasons most of us are out of touch with our own mortality. But even if we are in touch with it, we are not likely to slot the subject into our lullabies.

Enter the pandemic. Suddenly, Death, like a distant, distasteful relative, has shown up on our doorstep. It has brought a lot of luggage, and threatens an indefinite stay.

Short on spiritual resources to deal with this uninvited guest, it might make sense to turn to earlier centuries for help. Isaiah 40 comes to mind. I have often described this chapter to my students as God’s “lullaby to the exiles.” Comfort, comfort—it begins, and you can almost feel the exiles begin to relax in their heavenly Parent’s arms.

But Isaiah 40 has something else in common with lullabies of earlier centuries: it is utterly realistic about our mortality. “All people are grass,” it says candidly, and everyone knows that “the grass withers and the flower fades.” But here comes the comfort. Our lives may be short, but “the word of our God will stand forever.” Then the metaphor shifts. The point, however, does not. Our brief, fragile lives are held like lambs in the care of a Good Shepherd. “He will gather the lambs in his arms,” it says, “and carry them in his bosom.”

Perhaps the pandemic has put us in a better position to appreciate the candor of these lost lullabies. Suddenly, they strike us not so much as morbid, but realistic. Denial is a false friend. Our true comfort lies in the fact that we belong to an eternal God whose love will never let us go.

The person who sent me the lullaby about the rising moon is a pastor in Milan—the epicenter of Italy’s part of the pandemic. In an area roughly the size of Vermont, that region has lost over 12,000 people in the last two months. My friend is originally from Germany, and she told me that she takes great comfort in knowing that German Christians have started singing that old lullaby every evening at 7:30. If you read its final verse, you may find some comfort, too.

Lie down, my friends, reposing,
Your eyes in God’s name closing.
How cold the night-wind blows!
Oh God, Thine anger keeping,
Now grant us peaceful sleeping,
And our sick neighbor too.

Ponder: Did you grow up saying the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer? (That’s the one that ends with, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”) If so, did you teach it to your children? Why or why not? Has the pandemic changed how you feel about that prayer?

Pray: Pray these verses from the lullaby referenced above: Der Mond ist aufgegangen. It is by Matthias Claudius, and it was first published in Germany in 1779.

Grant that, without much grieving,
This world we may be leaving
In gentle death at last.
And then do not forsake us,
But into heaven take us,
Lord God, oh, hold us fast!

Lie down, my friends, reposing,
Your eyes in God’s name closing.
How cold the night-wind blows!
Oh God, Thine anger keeping,
Now grant us peaceful sleeping,
And our sick neighbor too.

Listen: Here are a few different settings of the lullaby, along with the full text of the poem in German and English.

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction to the Roman Roads Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Rome, Italy. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is turning out to be something less than a “Roman Holiday.” While a pandemic was not part of my original itinerary, it does lend a unique perspective to my writing these days. I offer these reflections along with my prayers for the health and safety of our world. May God bless and keep you all!

Roman Roads: Buon Viaggio

Read: Psalm 23

Surely, goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life…. (Psalm 23:6, author’s translation).

Every few days I emerge from my apartment in Rome to forage for food. I squint mole-like in the sun as I make my way to a few favorite shops. There’s the little grocery store between the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona. (It is actually a warren of six small rooms that make my mole spirit feel like I have gone to ground again.) Just around the corner from the grocery is the open-air market run by Marco and his mother. They sell me fruits, vegetables, and psychologically essential fresh flowers. (Smiles are free, though they are almost hidden behind the masks.) Finally, I swing by the bakery for my bi-weekly bread. (Daily bread is a dim, pre-pandemic memory.)

I love the bakery not only for the olive-studded focaccia that has become one of the highlights of my Roman lock-down life. I’ve also come to treasure the benediction that always accompanies my change. “Buon Viaggio,” the baker says, waving his gloved hand.

Before the pandemic he would send me on my way with the more typical, “Arrivederci.” But now, instead of “See you later,” he tells me to “Have a good trip.” Loosely translated, this can also mean, “Have a safe trip.” Maybe that explains the shift.

We are all on a similar trip these days, and safety has become an understandable obsession. Still, as I read people’s Facebook posts, it feels to me like we are all at different stages of the journey. Maybe it’s because I am an Old Testament professor, but it also occurs to me that these stages can be described in the imagery of one of the Bible’s best “journey” psalms: Psalm 23.

For some of us, the pandemic is still mostly a matter of inconvenience. God—or the government—is “making us lie down.” In our frenetic society, this may not be a bad thing. There is less air pollution, for instance, and some of us are spending more time with our families. But not everyone is experiencing this forced rest stop in the same way. Some people’s pastures are greener than others. Victims of domestic violence are doubly endangered when locked down with their abusers. Even those whose pastures are well and truly green are beset with anxiety and new responsibilities. And some don’t get to lie down at all because they are “essential workers.”

In recent days some of us have learned way more than we ever wanted to know about the “valley of the shadow of death” (KJV). The pandemic has become personal, either because we have lost loved ones, or because we have come down with the virus ourselves. Psalm 23’s reminder that we are not alone in this dark valley has never meant more. But this is not a trip we wanted to take, and hearing other people complain about how bored they are is both annoying and surreal.

All of us are finding out what it feels like to sit at a table in the presence of our enemies. If we are fortunate, there is food on that table. If we are not fortunate, we are both hungry and surrounded by a virus that threatens to crash the dinner party. Either way, the Psalm’s imagery is meant to sustain us. At the very least, it’s good to know that God is not naïve about the fact that Covid-19 has us surrounded.

All of this is to say that we might want to be sensitive to the fact that we are not all at the same place on Coronavirus Road. Whatever our experience, however, we can take comfort from the fact that God’s goodness and mercy will follow us. In fact, the Hebrew says they will pursue us. Who knew the Good Shepherd had two trusty sheep dogs named Goodness and Mercy?

Personally, I am grateful for the reminder that Goodness and Mercy are nipping at my heels, They are making sure I get home to God’s house in one piece, after all. And they may be my best hope of a buon viaggio.

Ponder: How would you describe where you are on Coronavirus Road? How might you be more sensitive to others who are at a different place? How have you experienced God’s goodness and mercy pursuing you?

Pray:  This prayer by Isaac Watts is based on Psalm 23.

My Shepherd, you supply my need,

most holy is your name;

in pastures fresh you make me feed,

beside the living stream.

You bring my wand’ring spirit back.

when I forsake your ways;

you lead me, for your mercy’s sake,

in paths of truth and grace.

When through the shades of death I walk,

your presence is my stay;

one word of your supporting breath

drives all my fears away.

Your hand in sight of all my foes,

does still my table spread;

my cup with blessings overflows,

your oil anoints my head.

Your sure provisions gracious God

attend me all my days;

oh, may your house be my abode,

and all my work be praise.

Here would I find a settled rest,

while others go and come;

no more a stranger, nor a guest,

but like a child at home.

 

Listen to a recording of this hymn/prayer by the Choir of the Washington National Cathedral: My Shepherd Will Supply My Need

 

 

Introduction to the Roman Roads Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Rome, Italy. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is turning out to be something less than a “Roman Holiday.” While a pandemic was not part of my original itinerary, it does lend a unique perspective to my writing these days. I offer these reflections along with my prayers for the health and safety of our world. May God bless and keep you all!

Roman Roads: Church Closed?

 

Read: Malachi 1:6-14

Oh, that someone among you would shut the temple doors… (Malachi 1:10a, NRSV).

There is something almost obscene about churches sitting empty during Holy Week. This is the very week we are supposed to be singing our hosannas and hallelujahs. And God knows, if ever we needed to move from death to resurrection, this is the time.

I am living in Rome right now, and we have been in “lockdown” mode for several weeks. I remember the initial sucker punch of seeing a Chiesa Chiusa (Church Closed) sign. But it’s been almost a month now, and I have had a little longer to get used to what passes for church during a pandemic. It’s not all bad as it turns out. In fact, there is something quite heartening about the weekly ZOOM service I have been attending with upwards of 100 Italian Protestants. We listen to scripture, music, and a sermon. We pray. We even have an offering. But the most moving part of the service for me is after the benediction when everyone’s microphone is turned on and we spend several minutes waving to each other and saying, “Ciao! Ciao! Ciao!” For some reason, that’s when I tear up. Perhaps it’s because that’s when we feel the absence of an embrace most keenly. Or maybe it’s because we know that once we click on “Leave Meeting” it’s the start of another week of isolation.

Still, it’s enough to prove that there is nothing virtual about virtual church. As we have heard so often, “church” is not a building, but a people. We are the body of Christ in the world, and in some ways, that has never been more true than it is since we were forced to “shut the temple doors.”

But let’s talk about that verse from Malachi. I will admit that I am taking it violently out of context. When Malachi first uttered these words, he was expressing his exasperation at fellow priests who were offering inferior sacrifices—cutting corners and going through the motions of religion—rolling their eyes and complaining about “what a weariness this is” (v. 13).

There are plenty of things about the contemporary church that might make Malachi want to get up and bar the door. Sexual abuse scandals, for starters. But if Malachi were blogging during this pandemic, I suspect he might have a few choice words for those few priestly hold-outs who are refusing to “shut the temple doors.” As my colleague Suzanne McDonald points out, they are a prime example of how “bad theology can kill people.”

Since I am quoting Suzanne, here is something she posted on her Facebook feed this week:

 

“Gatherings of significant numbers of people spread this disease to their communities like nothing else. People, what is your gospel problem?! It is very evident that love of God and neighbor demands that we do NOT gather in one place to worship at the moment…. I know it’s hard, but there are plenty of other ways for us to temporarily worship together even though physically apart. The ‘essential’ thing is that we continue to worship the Lord and seek to live for him. Nothing is preventing that. Oh, and to the Louisiana folks who have been packing into that megachurch: nope, buying an ‘anointed handkerchief’ sold by your snake-oil-salesman-pastor is not going to help.”

 

There is something “Malachi-esque” about both the content and tone of that post. Like the prophet, the professor does not mince words in an emergency.

During this week when we remember Christ’s death for others, we have an opportunity to set an example by acting in ways that give life to others. It is the way of the cross. And it is a powerful witness in the midst of this pandemic.

Ponder: The following post went viral on Italian social media recently. How does it speak to you as a Christian? As a human being?

 

This is an opportunity to turn an emergency into an opportunity of solidarity and unity.

Let’s change the way we see and think. I will no longer say ‘I’m afraid of this contagion,’ or

 ‘I don’t care about this contagion,’ but it is I who will sacrifice for you.

I worry about you.
I keep a distance for you.
I wash my hands for you.
I give up that trip for you.
I’m not going to the concert for you.
I’m not going to the mall for you.

For you!

For you who are inside an ICU room.
For you who are old and frail, but whose life has value as much as mine.
For you who are struggling with cancer and can’t fight this too.

Please, let’s rise to this challenge!

Come together…nothing else matters.

Pray: Help us make faithful choices in these difficult days. Show us how to live for you in ways that are generous, wise, and just. Help us to be the body of Christ in the world.

 

 

 

 

Introduction to the Roman Roads Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Rome, Italy. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is turning out to be something less than a “Roman Holiday.” While a pandemic was not part of my original itinerary, it does lend a unique perspective to my writing these days. I offer these reflections along with my prayers for the health and safety of our world. May God bless and keep you all!

Roman Roads: Peace, Be Still

 

Read: Mark 4:35-41

He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, Be still!” (Mathew 4:39, NRSV).

Sometimes my brain feels like a bug in a jar.

If I’m honest, that was true before the Coronavirus lockdown. Present circumstances seem to have exacerbated the condition, however. Something tells me you may know what I mean.

It isn’t just the physical confinement—though, goodness knows, that is part of the picture. It’s also the sense of helplessness. I feel like I ought to be able to DO SOMETHING. So I clean. I wash my hands. I scavenge the internet for news. I wash my hands. I post prayers to friends and family. I wash my hands. I write in what I’m only half-jokingly referring to as my “plague journal.” I wash my hands. I listen to the news to “keep on top of things.” I wash my hands. Every so often, I wait in line; I get groceries; I haul them home. I wash my hands.

Many of these activities really do help to combat the spread of the virus, and may even enhance my personal safety. But in recent days, I have also come to see that they are symptomatic of a desperate bid for control. I don’t like feeling helpless. So, I beat my little wings against the glass and wonder why a day of lockdown is so exhausting.

So, I have considerable sympathy for those desperate disciples when they shake Jesus awake and demand, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Evidently he does care. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he tells the wind to give it a rest. Then he stills the sea as if it were a troublesome toddler. Then, he turns to the disciples and asks, “Why are you afraid?” The Bible does not record their answer. Perhaps they were momentarily speechless. It simply says they were “filled with great awe,” and began asking each other the obvious question: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Who, indeed. The storm was not all Jesus stilled that day. He also stilled the disciples. That may have been the bigger miracle.

In the midst of this maelstrom, we often feel helpless. But we are in the care and company of One who is not helpless. We don’t know why the storm continues to rage. But it does not have to rage inside of us.

So, several times a day, I look at the picture at the top of this post. I imagine that it is Jesus, looking at me and saying, “Peace, be still.” Then I take a deep breath and wait for my miracle.

A strange thing happens when my personal storm subsides. First, I realize that “keeping on top of things” does not have to dominate my every waking moment. God’s got it. So, I turn off the news and turn on some music. Then, I press “pause” on sending prayers to all my Facebook friends, and I actually pray. Then, I resist the temptation to go out to get the thing I could probably do without, and I read a novel instead.

Then, I wash my hands. But I enjoy the feel of the water as it washes some of my fear down the drain.

Ponder:

  • What parts of your present situation make you feel like you are in the center of a storm? How might your “lockdown life” change if your inner storm was stilled?
  • Listen to Don’t Be Afraid by John L. Bell. As you listen to this simple song, open your heart to God’s promise to be with us always (Matthew 28:20). The words are:

 

Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger—my love is stronger than your fear.

Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger, and I have promised—

promised to be always near.

 

Note: This song also works well to for hand washing. Once through the song times out to around 25 seconds.

Pray:

I weave a silence onto my lips, my mind, my heart.

Calm me, O Lord, as you stilled the storm.

Still me, O Lord—keep me from harm.

Let all the tumult within me cease.

Enfold me, Lord, in your peace.

A prayer by David Adam

 

 

 

 

Introduction to the Roman Roads Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Rome, Italy. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is turning out to be something less than a “Roman Holiday.” While a pandemic was not part of my original itinerary, it does lend a unique perspective to my writing these days. I offer these reflections along with my prayers for the health and safety of our world. May God bless and keep you all!

Roman Roads: How Lonely Sits the City

 

The Pantheon: originally a place of prayer to all the gods, now a Christian church.

Read: Lamentations 1:1-4

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people…. (Lamentations 1:1a, NRSV).

When my husband and I arrived in Rome at the beginning of January, the city was full of people. Our daily walk took us past the Pantheon, and every step was a fight for real estate. Personal space was a pipe-dream. Tourists of every nationality posed smiling for selfies. Beggars dared us to make eye contact. Restaurant staff tempted us toward the tables lining the piazza with clever conversation starters. (“Welcome, newlyweds!”)

Now, in the second week of Italy’s coronavirus lockdown, the Roman Holiday is clearly over.

The tourists disappeared in late February. The restaurants closed in early March. Just before my husband went home in mid-March, we had the piazza pretty much to ourselves as we walked past the Pantheon on our way to the grocery store. Or at least we did until a French television news crew ran us down begging for an interview. “Why are you still here?” they wanted to know.

It was a good question. My husband did go home last week, but the timing of his return was as per our original plan. (“Not everyone gets a sabbatical,” he teased with an eye-roll.) But what a sabbatical it is turning out to be.

So, why am I still here? My emotions tell me to “bail,” but logic urges the opposite. I have a strong network of friends here, and their generosity makes it possible for me to stay. They are, in fact, urging me to stay for my own safety. That may sound absurd in a country upwards of 53,000 cases of COVID-19, but only 2% of those are in this area of Italy. My Italian friends are right. I am safer locked down in my little Roman apartment than I am on a series of planes that will take me to a country which is, frankly, unprepared for a pandemic.

Yesterday, as I trudged past the Pantheon, this phrase from Lamentations popped into my head. “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people….” The scholar in me says that I should be careful about taking the verse out of context. The image originally referred to Jerusalem—broken and bereft after the Babylonian conquest. But the pathos of the image is still apropo. As I watch the news from the USA, I suspect it will soon be an apt lament for many American cities as well.

And yet….

The stories you have heard about Italians singing from their balconies are true. The other day as rounded the corner of a narrow Roman street, I found myself in the middle of an impromptu piano recital. The neighbors were all leaning out of their windows smiling. And when the young pianist finished her halting rendition of the Italian national anthem, the audience broke into enthusiastic applause. “Brava! Brava!” they cried.

The tourists may be gone, but the Italians are still here. And the heart of Rome is still very much alive.

There is still one beggar in the piazza. He smiles at me whether or not I give him a coin. His presence reminds me that we are all beggars right now—pleading with God to make eye contact.

Ponder: What made you weep this week? What made you laugh? What gives you hope?

Pray:                     

O Christ, the healer, we have come

to pray for health, to plead for friends.

How can we fail to be restored

when reached by love that never ends?

From every ailment flesh endures

our bodies clamor to be freed;

yet in our hearts we would confess

that wholeness is our deepest need.

In conflicts that destroy our health

we recognize the world’s disease;

our common life declares our ills.

Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?

Grant that we all, made one in faith,

in your community may find

the wholeness that, enriching us,

shall reach the whole of humankind.

 

This prayer is a hymn text by Fred Pratt Green. Listen to a musical setting of it here: O Christ, the Healer, We Have Come

© 1969 Hope Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

 

 

Introduction to the Roman Roads Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Rome, Italy. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is turning out to be something less than a “Roman Holiday.” While a pandemic was not part of my original itinerary, it does lend a unique perspective to my writing these days. I offer these reflections along with my prayers for the health and safety of our world. May God bless and keep you all!

Roman Roads: Yesterday’s Problems

 

Read: Matthew 6:25-34

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today (Matthew 6:34, NRSV).

“Yesterday’s problems are today’s luxuries.”

This is what I said to my husband as we tried to digest the news of Italy’s latest restriction to combat the coronavirus. We were sitting across the breakfast table in our tiny apartment in Rome. It was early March, and each day brought some new regulation designed to stop the spread of the virus.

We had arrived in Italy on New Year’s Day, 2020. COVID-19 had arrived a couple of weeks later, although it was not detected until January 29. By late February the effects of the virus and the attendant restrictions on daily life were being felt in Rome. At first we tried to look on the bright side. We didn’t have to fight for side-walk space because the tourists were not nearly as thick on the ground. We could walk into most of our favorite restaurants without a reservation. Nervous store owners gave us a “corona discount.”

But as we talked with friends in Milan, we quickly realized that we were lucky to find anything close to a “bright side” for this virus. The news was deadly serious. At this writing (March 15), 21,157 people have been stricken with the virus here in Italy; 1441 have died.

Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said that tomorrow would “bring worries of its own.” One wonders how we are supposed to avoid worrying about them, however.

Which brings us back to that conversation over breakfast: Yesterday’s problems are today’s luxuries.

Have you ever worried about something, only to have something much worse overtake you the next day? In retrospect, you realize that you’d give a lot to have yesterday’s problems.

I’m still working on not worrying about tomorrow. But I have realized that Jesus was on to something when he reminded us that “today’s trouble is enough for today.”

So, this morning as I walked past the Pantheon on my way to the grocery store, I decided not to waste time worrying about what tomorrow would bring. Today it is enough to wonder whether a policeman will stop me and ask to see my written permit to be outside. Today I will pray for my friends and family half a world away as they try to come to terms with their own “national emergency.” Today I will walk past the street sign that says, “Via Panico” (Panic Street) and say, “No. I won’t panic. Because whether I live or whether I die, I am the Lord’s. And besides, today’s trouble is sufficient for today.”

Ponder: What are you learning from your experience of COVID-19? How do Paul’s words about “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” in Romans 14:8 help you face today? Tomorrow?

Pray:

Healer of our every ill,

light of each tomorrow,

give us strength beyond our fear

and hope beyond all sorrow.

 

This is the refrain from a beautiful piece by Marty Haugen. Listen to a musical setting of it here: Healer of Our Every Ill

 

 

 

Introduction to the Roman Roads Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Rome, Italy. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is turning out to be something less than a “Roman Holiday.” While a pandemic was not part of my original itinerary, it does lend a unique perspective to my writing these days. I offer these reflections along with my prayers for the health and safety of our world. May God bless and keep you all!

Faithful Foreigners: On Books and Their Covers

 

Read: Acts 8:26-40

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah (Acts 8:27-28, NRSV).

This story is all about stereotypes—and God’s tendency to overturn them.

The Ethiopian eunuch is a prime case in point, although we can’t fully appreciate that without meeting Simon, whose story is related earlier in the chapter.

Simon has issues. When we first meet him, he’s wowing the Samaritan crowd with magic tricks. And if he does say so himself, he is “someone great” (v. 9). When Philip comes along and upstages him with genuine miracles, Simon is quick to jump on the bandwagon and get baptized. His true nature is revealed, however, when he offers Philip cold hard cash for access to some of the Holy Spirit’s action. Philip is not impressed.

Now the scene shifts to a wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza. Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch, sitting in his chariot reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah (as one does….). When Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading, the eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Philip joins him in the chariot and a conversation ensues.

Even the wilderness defies stereotypes in this story, offering up some water at precisely the moment the Ethiopian eunuch wants to be baptized. Philip complies, and the story ends with Philip being snatched away by the Holy Spirit. (Simon would have loved that!) The eunuch goes on his way rejoicing—not, we assume, because of Philip’s spectacular exit, but because of his own newfound faith.

So, on the one hand we have Simon—the insider who says he is someone great but isn’t. His interest in the Gospel seems no deeper than what he can get out of it. Then we have the Ethiopian eunuch who is “not from around here” in several ways at once. But he really IS great, both in terms of his status as royal treasurer and in terms of his profound understanding of the Gospel.

So much for stereotypes.

The “Easter egg” hidden within this story is the passage that the eunuch is reading from Isaiah. It is from Isaiah 53—one of the “songs of the suffering servant.” It’s a poem about someone the exilic community had misjudged. Their theological stereotypes had suggested this person was “of no account.” He was “despised and rejected,” probably because they assumed his suffering was the result of his own sin. But then God opened their eyes to the fact that he was suffering, not for his own sins, but for theirs. What’s more, his was “the punishment that made [them] whole.”

Is it any wonder that this was the passage that the early Christians read this as being about Jesus? Is it any wonder that this was the passage that the Ethiopian eunuch found so fascinating?

Sometimes it takes an outsider to teach us the truth about books and their covers.

Ponder: Where do you see yourself in these stories? Have you ever been hurt (or hurt someone else) because of stereotypes?

Pray:

From people who claim they are great, but are not—good Lord, deliver us.

From the tendency to judge others according to stereotypes—good Lord, deliver us.

From the instinct to ask, “What’s in it for me?”—good Lord, deliver us.

 

Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series

Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.

In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.

The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!

As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!

Faithful Foreigners: Fear, Faith, & Foreigners

 

Read: Mark 15:33-39

Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39, NRSV).

He had probably seen hundreds of crucifixions. It is hard to imagine such creative cruelty becoming routine, but for the centurion, this was just another day on crucifixion detail. Until it wasn’t.

What was it about the manner of this man’s dying that drew these words from the centurion’s hardened heart?

In Matthew and Luke’s later versions of the same scene, other the details are rearranged a bit—as if to offer more probable explanations for this sudden confession of faith from such an unexpected source. In the gospel of Mark, however, it is simply Jesus’ last moments that moved the centurion to state—with elegant simplicity—what others had been unable or unwilling to see.

Mark’s version of the Roman centurion may be the quintessential example of the “faithful foreigner.” There are many good reasons to remember him—not least because his testimony adds the ring of truth to Mark’s description of the scene. As a foreigner, after all, he is the last person we would expect to say something like this. He has no stake in this game. In fact, the opposite is true. There is very reason to expect him to deny or simply ignore Jesus’ death. But he doesn’t. And because he doesn’t, we have another important reason to believe that Jesus truly is the Son of God.

Because I am writing this reflection from Italy—in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic—it occurs to me that there might be another reason to remember the witness of the Roman centurion. It has to do with fear, faith, and foreigners.

One Italian newspaper began a recent article this way: “Fear of contagion and the contagion of fear. Each epidemic always carries the other one.”* The authors of the article hasten to make it clear that they do not want to diminish the danger or the responsibility we face in the current crisis. But their point is important. Fear spreads as fast as any virus, and it can be just as dangerous.

Too often, we try to focus our fears on what is foreign to us. It’s called xenophobia (from the Greek words xenos [foreigner] and phobos [fear]). A February 3, 2020 article in Time gave some sobering examples. In late January, for instance, bystanders refused to provide CPR for a man who had collapsed outside a Chinese restaurant in Sydney Australia. They were afraid he might have the virus. He died of cardiac arrest. Or this from further back in history but closer to home:

During the nineteenth century, rather than curtail commercial shipping, which ferried cholera around the globe, rattled cholera-stricken societies from New York to London turned their ire onto Irish immigrants instead. In 1832, a group of Irish immigrants, irrationally scorned as carriers, were first quarantined, and then secretly massacred and buried in a mass grave.**

For more examples, simply scroll through your social media feed. Or better yet—don’t.

The dean of a high school in Milan wrote a letter to his students earlier this week. He cautioned them with these words: “The atavistic instinct when you feel threatened by an invisible enemy is to see him everywhere, the danger is to look at each of our fellow [human beings] as a threat, as a potential aggressor.”*

That caution is one we all need to hear. Perhaps we can carry it in our hearts along with the memory of the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross.

Ponder:

*Beyond Coronavirus: The Reason Against the Contagion of Fear by Vittorio Lingiardi and Guido Geovanardi (in Il Sole 24 Ore, February 26, 2020).

**The Pandemic of Xenophobia & Scapegoating by Sonia Shay (in Time, February 3, 2020).

Pray:

Circle us, Lord.
Keep protection near
and danger afar.

Circle us, Lord
Keep hope within.
Keep doubt without.

Circle us, Lord.
Keep light near
and darkness afar.

Circle us, Lord.
Keep peace within.
Keep evil out.

This is an adaptation of a prayer by David Adam, “Circle Me, Lord.” I have changed it to the plural so that it can better encompass our prayers for the whole world.

 

 

Introduction to the Faithful Foreigners Series

Sprinkled throughout Scripture are stories of “faithful foreigners.” These are people who are perceived as outsiders, but who often behave more faithfully than the insiders.

In our xenophobic age, it seems a good time to get reacquainted with these faithful foreigners. The Holy Spirit preserved their stories for a reason, after all. It’s my hope that we can learn some things about faith and faithfulness from what they have to teach us.

The first piece in the series explores Jesus as refugee. While it may not technically qualify as a “faithful foreigner” story, it does introduce us to some themes that will be important for understanding the faithful foreigner motif—and our resistance to those we perceive as “other.” After that, we’ll meet Rahab, Uriah, some eunuchs, a Roman centurion, and yes—even a couple of faithful foreigners from the animal kingdom!

As it happens, I am writing this series while on sabbatical in Rome, Italy. It will be interesting to see how my own experience of being a foreigner influences my engagement with these stories. You can decide if I’m a faithful foreigner or not!