The View from Here: Listen, Listen

 

Read: Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2, NRSV).

“What goes down, must come up.”

This may not be the way you remember the maxim, but it was one of the first lessons I learned when I began hiking in the mountains. Gravity does not negotiate. There is a steep price to pay (pun intended) for yielding to curiosity’s question: “I wonder where this path goes…?” In my case, the path went well down the mountain, and I realized too late that gravity was not going to be my friend when it was time to turn around and go home.

The experience has given me a fresh angle on Psalm 121. Like most people, I had always assumed that the “hills” in this familiar psalm were a symbol of God’s strength and protection. Sure, some commentators had raised questions about this, suggesting that hills and mountains were rife with bandits and Baal worshipers. But I had never found this negative spin on the meaning of the mountains very convincing.

Now, however, I’m beginning to wonder. While I have not yet encountered any Baal worshipers or bandits here in Italy, the mountains do have their share of dangers. “Oh, look—a wee snake!” I said cheerily to my hiking companion. “You might want to back up a bit,” she advised calmly. “That’s a viper.”

While there are no snakes in Psalm 121, it is, shall we say, sufficiently sensible of conditions. There is danger there on the road going up to Jerusalem. This is one of a group of psalms of ascent, after all, composed by people on pilgrimage to the Temple. When one false step can spell disaster, it’s good to know that God is not going to doze off on you (vv. 3-4). If a spot of shade is welcome even in northern Italy, it must have been even more welcome in the biblical pilgrim’s climate (vv. 5-6). And if you’re worried about being “moonstruck,” God’s got you covered there, too.

So, when we are trying to get inside these pilgrims’ heads, I think we should consider the possibility that lifting up their eyes to the hills filled them with more fear than reassurance. The good news is that we don’t really have to solve this riddle to feel the comfort of the following verse. Either way, the psalmist knows that “my help comes from the LORD.” And in case you are unclear about that God’s credentials, this is the same LORD who created the heaven and earth.” So, this divinity is not going to have any trouble protecting us from slips and sunburns—or bandits and Baal worshipers for that matter.

If you are wondering what this ancient argument has to do with you, look no further than the news. It doesn’t make much sense to deny the presence of danger. Gravity can kill you in the mountains; Coronavirus can kill you anywhere in the world. As Governor Cuomo observed, “This is a virus…you can’t tweet at it. You have to treat it.”

The protestant Christians here in Italy have a favorite hymn that remembers a particularly harrowing journey their ancestors made across the Alps back in the 17th century. They were fleeing the Inquisition, but the mountains must have presented an equally terrifying danger on that trip. Whenever I hear the refrain to that hymn, I imagine the parents bending down trying to reassure their children—and perhaps themselves. The refrain says:

Ascolta, ascolta, i passi del tuo Signore: cammina sulla strada, cammina insieme a te.

Listen, listen—the steps of your Lord: (He) walks on the road, (He) walks with you.

As we walk this dangerous road together, perhaps these words can remind us that we do not walk it alone. Listen for God’s footsteps beside you. They are the footsteps of the one “who made heaven and earth.” They are the footsteps of the one who will not let your foot slip…the one who will keep your life forevermore.

Ponder the words to Footsteps, an anthem by Craig Courtney from Beckenhorst Press.

Pray: We lift up our eyes, O God, and we fear the road ahead. Use that fear to make us alert to the real and present danger. But walk beside us as well, and give us courage for whatever comes.

 

 

 

“The View from Here” Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Italy. After living for several months in the heart of Rome, I recently made a move to the mountains. (The Italian side of the Cottian Alps, to be precise—southwest of Turin and very close to the French border.) The transition was tricky, what with the pandemic and Italy’s tight restrictions on travel. But I am grateful for the spectacular change of scenery after being locked down in a two-room apartment. While the view has changed, I will continue to offer what I hope is a unique perspective on Italy—and the world—right now.

And yes—the picture above really is the place where I am living. Now you know why I’m calling this series, “The View from Here.” I hope that you will be able to enjoy that view vicariously, as well as some of the deep peace of this place.

Shalom,

The View from Here: Ample Make this Bed

 

Read: Genesis 23

After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre …in the land of Canaan (Genesis 23:19, NRSV).

In the mountains you can take the same walk every day, but it’s never the same walk. The weather is a shape-shifter, for one, and can offer variety from one minute to the next. The flowers and the fields change their clothes more slowly, but having been here for over a month I am able to admire their shifting taste in fashion. The baby goats, formerly alarmed by my approach, now regard me with the nonchalance of teenagers. Are they just bored with me, or do I detect a hint of disdain?

What most of us forget is that we change as well. Our experiences alter our perspective on familiar landscapes. Think, for instance, of how different the world looks through Covid-colored lenses. Or, to cite a more slow-moving example, consider how the experience of parenthood changes our perspective on our own parents.

I thought of these things as I walked through this familiar passage from Genesis. Abraham, the wandering Aramean, is grieving for his wife, Sarah. But he is just passing through, so finding a final resting place for her presents special problems. If he and Sarah had purchased parallel plots in the local cemetery back in Haran, they are useless to them now.

The locals, who seem to have a deep respect for this grieving stranger, offer Abraham his choice of their best burial sites. In fact, he has his eye on a cave at the end of a field near Mamre. It’s a symbolic choice that makes us smile, since Mamre was the place where Sarah herself laughed at the news that she was going to become a mother (Genesis 18). Perhaps the memory gives Abraham some comfort, too. In any case, he insists on paying for the plot of land, and the Bible even describes the process by which the debt is paid. (One can’t help but wish that the rest of the conquest had been carried out with such courtesy….) The chapter ends with Abraham laying Sarah to rest in what is—in retrospect—a kind of down-payment on the promised land.

There is nothing fun about a funeral. But there is a deep sense of satisfaction and closure when we are able to carry out this final act of care for those we love. Of course, there is also the comfort we receive from those who take part in these rituals of leave-taking. We cry together. We embrace one another. We tell the old stories. We even laugh sometimes—we can’t help ourselves, after all, if we remember the good times. But mostly, we need to make sure that our loved one’s earthly remains are handled with honor and care. We “tuck them in” to their final resting place.

One of the cruelest aspects of “Coronatide” is the loss of these familiar funeral rituals. So as I pass through this familiar passage I find myself feeling something utterly new: jealousy. I am jealous of Abraham being able to bury his wife Sarah with such dignity—even among strangers.

I spoke with an Italian pastor yesterday about all the adjustments he and his parishioners had been forced to make during this pandemic. Some people were simply postponing funerals—holding their loved one’s ashes until a traditional funeral could take place. What happens, we wondered, to their grief in such situations? The funeral may be postponed, but grief will not wait. He told me he has held a couple of socially distanced funerals, but without singing and embracing, they fell far short of what the mourners needed most. And then there were the funerals with three living people present—the pastor and two mourners—all in masks.

The loss of familiar funeral rituals compounds our sense of loss. It is a cruel reality that must be faced if we are to avoid endangering the living. Still, I wonder if we might still be able to perform this final act of care with creativity and courage. It will not be what we are used to. It will not be what we imagined. But it may the best we can do during Coronatide. Finally, we will simply have to trust God to tuck our loved ones in.

Ponder this April 24, 2020 podcast from “The Daily” by the New York Times. It’s called “A New Way to Mourn,” and it includes an interview with Rev. Wayne Irwin, a retired minister of the United Church of Canada. Rev. Irwin, a veteran of 40 years of funerals, talks with the host about his experience of planning an on-line funeral for his wife, Flora May.

Pray this poem by Emily Dickinson:

Ample make this Bed
Make this Bed with Awe
In it wait till Judgment break
Excellent and Fair
Be its Mattress straight
Be its Pillow round
Let no Sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this Ground.

 

Listen to Dan Forrest’s Song of the Wanderer.

 

Text: Johanna Anderson, Thomas Ken

Music: Dan Forrest, quoting Old Hundredth

 

 

“The View from Here” Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Italy. After living for several months in the heart of Rome, I recently made a move to the mountains. (The Italian side of the Cottian Alps, to be precise—southwest of Turin and very close to the French border.) The transition was tricky, what with the pandemic and Italy’s tight restrictions on travel. But I am grateful for the spectacular change of scenery after being locked down in a two-room apartment. While the view has changed, I will continue to offer what I hope is a unique perspective on Italy—and the world—right now.

And yes—the picture above really is the place where I am living. Now you know why I’m calling this series, “The View from Here.” I hope that you will be able to enjoy that view vicariously, as well as some of the deep peace of this place.

Shalom,

The View from Here: Monumental

 

Read: Genesis 31:43-55

Therefore he called…the pillar Mizpah (Watchpost), for he said, “The LORD watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other (Genesis 31:48b-49, NRSV).

Monuments have been much in the news lately. Having lived in Richmond, Virginia in the early 90’s, I watched with delighted disbelief these last weeks as Jefferson Davis took a tumble. Robert E. Lee is still clinging to his plinth, but I suspect it’s only a matter of time before he “steps down” as well.

Jacob and Laban didn’t trust each other any further than they could have thrown the boulder they set up as a monument to their strained relationship. If you read the whole of Genesis 31, you’ll see that Jacob spends a lot of time justifying his actions. It makes one wonder if the “protests too much.” Laban simply shrugs and says, “What can I do?” He knows Jacob pretty well by now, and there is a sense in which the two deserve each other. The monument they erect is intended as a “witness” between then, It’s partly an acknowledgement that they need an impartial judge to sort out who is in the right. But mostly, it’s a symbol of the new non-aggression pact between them.

And you thought your family dynamics were complicated!

On the side of a mountain near where I’m staying in Italy’s Angrogna Valley, there is a very different kind of monument. It was erected in memory of the six-day Synod of Chanforan, held on that very mountainside in 1532. It was a meeting of the minds between the local Waldensian leadership and representatives of the “new” reformation leaders from Calvin’s Geneva. Bear in mind that the Waldensians had been insisting on reading the Bible for themselves since the 12th century. But at this synod, they decided that they were basically on the same page as the newcomers from Geneva. The first thing the new allies did was to commission the first full translation of the Bible from the original languages into French. It got a lot of them killed, unfortunately, but they certainly had the courage of their convictions. This whole chapter of the Reformation could well be called, “Dying to Read the Bible.”

As a veteran of many church synods, there aren’t many I would want to memorialize with a monument. To be honest, they all tend to run together in my mind. The one exception, however, was the Reformed Church in America’s 2010 General Synod, which officially embraced the Belhar Confession. The Belhar was born in South Africa amidst the struggle against apartheid. I remember people arguing against its adoption on the grounds that this “wasn’t our fight.” Recent events have, I hope, put that argument to rest. I, for one, am grateful for this living monument to unity, reconciliation, and justice. Its words, forged in the pain of the past, are a touchstone for present and future faithfulness.

Time and Providence will decide which monuments deserve to stand.

Ponder this quote from the Belhar Confession:

We believe that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced (racial) separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, much be considered ideology and false doctrine.

Pray: Help us to feel the reconciling force of the gospel, gracious God. Help us—individually and collectively—to walk the road of obedience.

Listen to “Time to Say Goodbye” as sung by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. I often find myself singing this popular Italian song while I’m cleaning out the refrigerator, but perhaps its refrain may be appropriate for some of our monuments as well.

 

 

“The View from Here” Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Italy. After living for several months in the heart of Rome, I recently made a move to the mountains. (The Italian side of the Cottian Alps, to be precise—southwest of Turin and very close to the French border.) The transition was tricky, what with the pandemic and Italy’s tight restrictions on travel. But I am grateful for the spectacular change of scenery after being locked down in a two-room apartment. While the view has changed, I will continue to offer what I hope is a unique perspective on Italy—and the world—right now.

And yes—the picture above really is the place where I am living. Now you know why I’m calling this series, “The View from Here.” I hope that you will be able to enjoy that view vicariously, as well as some of the deep peace of this place.

Shalom,

The View from Here: Seen, Mourned, Loved, and Celebrated

 

Read: Psalm 116

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones (Psalm 116:15, NRSV).

Sometimes it’s the panorama that takes your breath away. Other times, it’s the close-up—stunning in its particularity.

I thought of this as I read the post of a friend, Shari Deemter Oosting, this week. It related a conversation she had with her 11-year-old son, Asher. With her permission, I share it with you:

Asher: “I see a lot of signs with George Floyd’s name, and some with Breonna Taylor’s. But I didn’t really see many with the name of the man who was running.”

Shari: “Ahmaud Arbery?”

Asher: “Yeah, Ahmaud Arbery. Why?”

Shari: “I think we tend to have short memories. And we forget too many people. That’s part of the problem. Some of us act like this is new every time.”

Asher: “I think we should remember all their names.”

Shari: “Me too, son.”

We should indeed remember all their names—not “only” because they were each beloved children of God and divine image-bearers, but because sinful systems in which many of us participate contributed to their deaths. So, if you’re white—there’s that.

The fact of the matter is, though, that most of us can’t even trace our own family tree back past our great grandparents. The very people who shaped our DNA “fly forgotten as a dream.”

For those of us who have lost friends and family members to Covid-19, it’s impossible to get past the pain of particularity. We see the numbers rise each day, and we mourn the wide sweep of death’s scythe. But what brings us to our knees is the memory of particular people we’ve lost. For us, their lives can never be captured by statistics.

In light of all these losses, there is something exquisitely comforting in this verse tucked in near the end of Psalm 116: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones.” This does not mean that God enjoys their death. Just the opposite. It means that each person’s life is seen, mourned, loved and celebrated by God. And that holds true whether we remember their names or not.

One of my favorite walks here in the Angrogna Valley is the one that takes me to a village with the impossibly quaint name of Buona Notte. (The name means “Good Night” in Italian.) The path to Buona Notte winds through the woods and along the mountain, offering breathtaking vistas around every bend. But one day last week, it was not the panoramic views that caught my attention. It was a very particular plaque on the edge of town in memory of a man named Riccardo Gatto.

Riccardo Gatto was a protester from an earlier generation. Captured in Buona Notte by the Nazis in 1945, he left this letter for his parents:

 

“I was sentenced tonight to capital punishment. In a few hours we will have finished our troubled odyssey. I was convicted because I was a partisan. I die with a confident heart, sure that I have done my duty loyally. Courage to all—and especially to you dear mama and papa; I followed my idea, and although this is a blow for you, you must arm yourself with courage and overcome…keep it for my memory, Riccardo.”

 

Most of us will not receive a plaque that speaks so eloquently to future generations. But that doesn’t mean our lives will “fly forgotten as a dream.” In God’s heart, we are seen, mourned, loved, and celebrated—in all of our precious particularity.

Ponder this quote from chapter two of Gill Hornby’s novel, Miss Austen: “These are the things by which most of us are remembered, these small acts of love, the only evidence that we, too, once lived on this earth. The preserves in the larder, the stiches on the kneeler, the mark of the pen on the page.”

Pray the words of Craig Courtney’s “God of the Sparrow.” The text by Jonathan Cook draws on the imagery of Psalm 84:3 where “even the sparrow finds a home” at God’s altars. Here is a verse from the piece:

God of the sparrow, care for us,

Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.

Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,

Pour out Your mercy, send relief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The View from Here” Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Italy. After living for several months in the heart of Rome, I recently made a move to the mountains. (The Italian side of the Cottian Alps, to be precise—southwest of Turin and very close to the French border.) The transition was tricky, what with the pandemic and Italy’s tight restrictions on travel. But I am grateful for the spectacular change of scenery after being locked down in a two-room apartment. While the view has changed, I will continue to offer what I hope is a unique perspective on Italy—and the world—right now.

And yes—the picture above really is the place where I am living. Now you know why I’m calling this series, “The View from Here.” I hope that you will be able to enjoy that view vicariously, as well as some of the deep peace of this place.

Shalom,

The View from Here: Longing for Justice

 

Read: Psalm 125

Do good, O LORD, to those who are good, and to those who are upright in their hearts (Psalm 125:4, NRSV).

When my grandmother was dying, she said she could see a beautiful meadow. “If only I could get over and walk in that meadow,” she sighed.

Many of us have felt a longing like that this past week. But none have felt it more keenly than people of color. If part of what that meadow represents is justice, then they have been waiting to walk there for a very long time.

Psalm 125 reads like it was written by a pastor who is all too familiar with that longing. The sermon starts out confident enough, full of reassuring words about how God surrounds the people like the mountains surround Jerusalem. “Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion,” the pastor preaches, perhaps pounding the pulpit for emphasis. They are steadfast as that mountain, “which cannot be moved, but abides forever.”

But some of that confidence begins to slip as the psalm goes on. Something is very wrong. A “scepter of wickedness” is stretched over the land. There is no end in sight—no justice in sight. All of the power seems to be in the wrong hands.

Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. There doesn’t seem to be any reward for doing the right thing. The wicked flourish; the righteous suffer. This pastor is afraid that the faithful will lose faith—that they will “stretch out their hand to do wrong.” If there is no justice, after all, why bother?

This won’t last, the pastor tells the congregation. The justice you long for is real, and it’s still worth fighting for. God is not fooled by the pretenders who misuse their power, who talk about justice but pull the rug out from under it at every opportunity.

Then the sermon turns into a prayer. “Do good, O LORD, to those who are good!” (v. 4, italics mine). This is the point where the pastor speaks, not to the congregation, but for them. Lord, have mercy! is the cry of their heart. Their longing is palpable, and their suffering all too real.

This psalm reads like it was written last week. And for what it’s worth, its longing for justice is shared by people the world over. Those of you in the USA should know that the world is watching, both in horror and solidarity. Protests against racial injustice are taking place in Rome, Naples, Florence, and Milan. It seems people all around the world are longing for that beautiful meadow just across the fence.

There is a German word for this kind of longing: Sehnsucht. While the word does not have a precise English counterpart, “homesickness” may capture some of what it conveys. But one definition suggests that Sehnsucht is a longing for something you never had. If that’s the case, then it’s no wonder we feel it so keenly.

Our longing is as real as our pain—indeed, the two are intertwined. But in the midst of both, the preacher of Psalm 125 reminds us not to give up. Someday, with God’s help, we will walk in that meadow. We are marching to that meadow.

Ponder: As you watch the news, what specific longings do you feel? What longings do you hear other people expressing?

Pray: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Listen to It Is Enough by R. DeAndre Johnson. Pastor Johnson wrote the song in in 2016. He chose to sing it again on June 1, 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd. You can hear the pain and the longing throughout the piece, but especially in the words of these last two verses:

O my soul, it aches and yearns

for a day when passions burn

for others with deep love, concern:

Kyrie eleison.

There are no words that can contain

the depths of wounds our souls sustain

each time a grieving heart exclaims:

Kyrie eleison.

 

 

 

“The View from Here” Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Italy. After living for several months in the heart of Rome, I recently made a move to the mountains. (The Italian side of the Cottian Alps, to be precise—southwest of Turin and very close to the French border.) The transition was tricky, what with the pandemic and Italy’s tight restrictions on travel. But I am grateful for the spectacular change of scenery after being locked down in a two-room apartment. While the view has changed, I will continue to offer what I hope is a unique perspective on Italy—and the world—right now.

And yes—the picture above really is the place where I am living. Now you know why I’m calling this series, “The View from Here.” I hope that you will be able to enjoy that view vicariously, as well as some of the deep peace of this place.

Shalom,

The View from Here: All Manner of Wickedness

 

Read: Psalm 36

Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O LORD (Psalm 36:5-6, NRSV).

My grandmother had a favorite phrase that she only used while cleaning the house. When confronted with a forgotten corner of the refrigerator or a neglected closet, she would wrinkle her nose and dub it a “den of iniquity.”

It’s a useful phrase that the author of Psalm 36 would have appreciated. Indeed, when we pry open the door of Psalm 36, all manner of wickedness spills out at our feet. It’s such a mess, one wonders whether anyone will ever be able to clean it up.

The psalmist pictures sin whispering into the ear of the wicked, who are only too open to suggestion. They have no fear of God, and they flatter themselves into believing that their deeds will never be discovered. “The words of their mouths are mischief and deceit; they have ceased to act wisely and to do good” (v. 3). They lie awake at night dreaming up vile things to do the next day.

Does this description remind you of anyone? While I hesitate to mention any names, I have to admit, these verses do make me think of certain politicians who can always be counted on to do the wrong thing. I read the headlines each morning and wonder, “Seriously? Did you lie awake at night concocting that tweet—that policy—that lie?”

If Psalm 36 is any indication, this is not a new problem. (Except for the tweeting. I suppose that part is new.) Wickedness—whether in the form of individuals or systems—has always loomed large, and the faithful of every age have cowered beneath it and been tempted to despair.

The psalmist is not naïve about the problem, but he/she is quick to put it in perspective. Wickedness may loom large, but God’s steadfast love looms a lot larger. In fact, it extends to the heavens. God’s faithfulness reaches to the clouds. God’s righteousness is like the mighty mountains.

That mountain metaphor is particularly powerful for me these days, perched as I am on the side of a mountain in the Cottian Alps. Some days the mountains are crystal clear, and it’s easy to see why the psalmist would choose them as symbols of God’s towering righteousness. But even on a misty morning, one knows they are there—steadfast and immovable, beautiful and dangerous. The people who live here know not to mess with them.

There is great comfort in this, of course, as the psalm goes on to say. But I wonder if comfort may not be the only take-away. How might we read this psalm differently if we acknowledged that some of the wickedness dwells within us?

It’s hard not to ask that question when racial tensions call our attention to the virus that has plagued the USA for a lot longer than the one that’s causing the current pandemic. How, then, should we read the prayer at the end of Psalm 36?

O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright of heart!

Do not let the foot of the arrogant tread on me, or the hand of the wicked drive me away.

There the evildoers lie prostrate; they are thrust down, unable to rise.

This reversal at the end of the psalm is brutal—especially with the image of George Floyd’s murder so fresh in our minds. It presents us with a promise that all manner of wickedness will someday be punished—that the brutal will feel the effects of their own brutality. But if some of that wickedness is inside of us, then there is less comfort here than confrontation.

It is fun to mock the pretentions of the wicked, until we realize that there is a “den of iniquity” somewhere within all of us. First we have to see it. Then we need to get someone to help us clean it up. Maybe we should look for Someone whose righteousness is as high as the mountains.

Ponder this question from Denise Kingdom Grier: “What’s the secret sauce that permits hatred of injustice and ‘it’s too controversial’ to co-habitate?”

Pray: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24).

Listen to Dan Forrest’s arrangement of the hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” for choir, brass, percussion, and orchestra. The visuals in this mix make the most of the mountain metaphor.

 

 

“The View from Here” Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Italy. After living for several months in the heart of Rome, I recently made a move to the mountains. (The Italian side of the Cottian Alps, to be precise—southwest of Turin and very close to the French border.) The transition was tricky, what with the pandemic and Italy’s tight restrictions on travel. But I am grateful for the spectacular change of scenery after being locked down in a two-room apartment. While the view has changed, I will continue to offer what I hope is a unique perspective on Italy—and the world—right now.

And yes—the picture above really is the place where I am living. Now you know why I’m calling this series, “The View from Here.” I hope that you will be able to enjoy that view vicariously, as well as some of the deep peace of this place.

Shalom,

 

The View from Here: Escape from Ourselves

 

Read: Psalm 11

In the LORD I take refuge; how can you say to me, “Flee like a bird to the mountains….”? (Psalm 11:1, NRSV).

So, I really did flee like a bird to the mountains—just last week, in fact. My new home in northwest Italy could not be a greater contrast to my tiny apartment in central Rome, but to paraphrase Jane Austen, Rome had “delighted me long enough.”

Even in lockdown, Rome was far noisier than my new mountain refuge—a cluster of small, stone structures clinging to the slopes above the village of San Lorenzo in the Angrogna Valley. But just as I was luxuriating in the sound of songbirds, “the peace of wild things” was shattered by what I can only describe as cow cacophony.

My chalet shares a lane with a farm next door. The day after my arrival, that lane came alive with cows. Herded by children a fraction of their size, the cows were crowded into the barnyard to receive the bells that would help keep them safe in the high summer pastures for which they would soon depart. This was all part of the prep. Big cows got big bells; calves got baby bells. Some of the most beautiful bovine specimens received fancy, expensive-looking bells, which I assume signified the recipients’ prize status. But as I watched the parade pass by, I had to hold my hands over my ears. So much for the sound of silence!

Even the cows themselves seemed alarmed by the noise. I laughed out loud as the herd hurried from one end of the pasture to the other, trying to “escape” the sound of themselves. It made me think of a stanza from a poem Emily Dickinson: The Manner of the Children—who weary of the Day—Themself—the noisy Plaything they cannot put away.

Suddenly, I stopped laughing.  Come to think of it, I had a lot in common with those fleeing cows. There really is no escape from ourselves, after all. And some problems—like pandemics—can’t be shaken off no matter how fast we run back and forth across the pasture. Even climbing the mountain won’t get that bell off our necks.

The urge to escape is understandable. But when the psalmist’s friends advised him to “flee like a bird to the mountains,” he wisely recognized that God was his only real refuge. We would do well to realize the same.

Does this mean we throw caution to the wind, and rush back to our lives as if the pandemic did not exist? Of course not. Just bragging that we will “not be ruled by fear” is absurd. A little fear is healthy sometimes. The psalmist was still surrounded by enemies after he announced that he was going to trust God instead of running away. Denial would have been dangerous. At the end of the day, denial is simply escapism by another name.

Perhaps the difference is one of demeanor. If we know our true refuge is in God, we can go about the business of survival without feeling like we are in a constant state of “fight or flight.”

The cows left for their summer pastures last night. Most of them seem to have adjusted to their bells. The silence after their exodus is profound, though now my ears can detect the gentler sounds that were lost under the layers of cow cacophony—birdsong and rustling leaves for starters. I am still wearing my own metaphorical bell, but I find that if I keep my spirit still, I can stop running back and forth across the pasture.

Ponder: What is the bell around your neck these days? What helps you keep your spirit still?

Pray: Help us to find our refuge in you, O God. Even as we contend with each day’s dangers, keep our spirits still. May that inner peace be a balm to both ourselves and others. Amen.

Listen to The Music of Stillness  by Elaine Hagenberg (poem by Sarah Teasdale).

 

 

“The View from Here” Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Italy. After living for several months in the heart of Rome, I recently made a move to the mountains. (The Italian side of the Cottian Alps, to be precise—southwest of Turin and very close to the French border.) The transition was tricky, what with the pandemic and Italy’s tight restrictions on travel. But I am grateful for the spectacular change of scenery after being locked down in a two-room apartment. While the view has changed, I will continue to offer what I hope is a unique perspective on Italy—and the world—right now.

And yes—the picture above really is the place where I am living. Now you know why I’m calling this series, “The View from Here.” I hope that you will be able to enjoy that view vicariously, as well as some of the deep peace of this place.

Shalom,

 

Roman Roads: The Cost of Caring

 

Read: Isaiah 40:25-31

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable (Isaiah 40:28, NRSV).

They call it “compassion fatigue.” Even if you can’t come up with a ready definition for the phrase, you may be all too familiar with the phenomenon. It’s not just that you are tired. It’s that you are exhausted—emotionally and physically—from the sight of so much suffering.

I thought of compassion fatigue this week when my friend, Dorothee Mack, posted a picture of the flooded streets below her apartment in Milan. “Go to sleep in Milan…wake up in Venice!” she wrote. Is it not enough that over 31,000 people have died from COVID-19 in that region of Italy; now they have to deal with floods?! The irony is that this storm will probably not even make the news in most places. And even if it does, people may not have the emotional energy to give it much thought.

Why is that? Is it because we are callous? Are we selfish or cruel or indifferent to the suffering of others? Maybe. Or maybe we simply have a bad case of compassion fatigue.

It’s not as if the pandemic is our only problem. Flooded streets in Milan are just the tip of the ice-berg. Oh, that’s right—the ice-bergs are melting because of climate change. Racism is ever with us, leaving its unwelcome calling card in the form of way too many black and brown bodies. Did I mention hate speech, poverty, and domestic violence? Political poison with some sexism on the side?

I find myself wistful for the time when the world was not so much “with us.” In an article about the negative impact of incessant media exposure, Psychology Today observed that “we can fathom the suffering of a few, but a million becomes a statistic that numbs us” (see below).

Even before the advent of media overload, 19th century novelist George Eliot put her finger on something close to compassion fatigue when she wrote about the overwhelming nature of even “ordinary” human suffering:

“That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” (Middlemarch, Part 2, chapter 20)

If what she wrote is true of everyday suffering en masse, how much more are we likely to be overwhelmed by tragedy on a global scale?

If we are to avoid being crushed by the weight of the world’s grief, we will need to take refuge in the One who “does not faint or grow weary” (Is. 49:28). As the Creator, God’s credentials are clear. The One who created the universe is strong enough to handle this. While we may feel like our personal suffering goes unnoticed, God’s “understanding is unsearchable” (vv. 27-28). God sees, God hears, and God cares. Yet God is not overwhelmed by that “that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

So, hear this good news in the midst of your grief, your anxiety, and your compassion fatigue: there is a place you can find rest. It is in the shelter of the One who is strong enough to bear the full weight of the world’s suffering. It is in the company of the One who is—even now—working to end that suffering. It is in the promise of the One who whispers to us in our darkness: “…those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (v. 31).

Pray: Hear our cry, O Lord. Our frames cannot bear the weight of the world’s suffering. We are tired. We are anxious. We are afraid. And God forgive us, sometimes we are numb. In your mercy, bear the weight of our worries. Then renew our strength, so that we may mount up with wings like eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not faint. Amen.

Ponder: Read Are You Suffering from Compassion Fatigue? by Sherrie Borg Carter, Psy.D. While this article from Psychology Today was published in 2014, it does a good job of naming some of the symptoms and strategies for dealing with this condition.

Listen to this version of We’ll Meet Again, a WWII song that the Brits dusted off for the 75th anniversary of VE Day on May 8. The faith expressed by this song is generic, but it’s been giving people a lift since 1939. Part of its power is that it doesn’t deny the pain of the present, but trusts that “we’ll meet again some sunny day.”

 

 

 

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 Blame Game

 

Read: Job 42:7-9

My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. (Job 42:7b, NRSV).

In Italy we were not ten minutes into the pandemic before a conservative Catholic radio host proclaimed that it was “a warning from the heavens against materialism.”

While I agree that materialism is a problem, I wondered how Father Fanzaga could make the connection to COVID-19 with such certainty. But isn’t that always the way when disaster strikes? There is always someone who takes to the airwaves with an answer to the question: Whose fault is this?

The question is natural enough. Our brains crave a clear cause and effect. The only problem with the “blame game” is that it tempts us to assume we know far more than we do.

Several millennia ago, Job’s friends got their comeuppance from God when they tried something like this. They assumed that Job was suffering because of some secret sin. In a word: he wasn’t. As readers, we have known this for forty-one chapters, so it’s enormously satisfying when we finally hear God say to the ring-leader, Eliphaz: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

But then the story takes an unexpected turn. First, God tells Job’s “frenemies” to make a very expensive sacrifice to atone for their sin. So far, so standard. But here comes the catch: God will only accept their sacrifice when Job prays for them. “I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly,” God says.

For the friends, this final humiliation must have stung even more than the sacrifice. But how must it have felt to Job? The Bible doesn’t say, but evidently Job rose to the occasion because the story says that “the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.”

The book of Job is a big old cautionary tale against claiming to know more than we do. As such, it deserves a spot on everyone’s essential lockdown reading list. The story may be old as the hills, but it is still the best remedy for what N.T. Wright calls “the usual silly suspects” who inevitably appear to “tell us why God is doing this to us” (see Time, March 29. 2020).

The detail about Job’s prayer takes this old story to a new level, however. Just when we are tempted to sit back and say, “Ha! I’m right and you’re wrong!” God asks us to cut short our self-righteous celebrations in favor of something more constructive.

There is a street not far from my apartment in Rome called, “Via dell’ Umilità” (Humility Street). It really is a humble little street, made even more-so by some temporary scaffolding that makes it difficult to find.

I snapped a picture of the street sign back in January, thinking that it was an apt description of what I was experiencing in my beginner’s Italian class. Then, having been insufficiently humiliated in language class, I joined the gym. This took me even further down Humility Road. But then came the pandemic, and I realized that I had a long, long journey ahead of me.

I can usually resist the temptation to play the “blame game” when disaster strikes. I can see that the “usual silly suspects” presume too much when they offer up their over-simplistic explanations for the world’s suffering. But perhaps God is inviting me—inviting us—to do more than just refute them and/or celebrate their comeuppance.  Perhaps God is asking us to pray for them, and thereby learn a lesson about humility ourselves.

Reading Job’s story again reminds me that I need to look more carefully for the entrance to “Via dell’ Umilità.”

Ponder:

  • Think of someone who likes to play the blame game. How have they hurt you? How have they hurt others? How might praying for them heal you both?
  • Read N.T. Wright’s article in Time magazine from March 29, 2020: Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To (Note: Wright’s article cites the biblical practice of lament as an alternative to what I have called the “blame game.”)

Pray: Heal the hearts of those who are quick to blame. Lead us all in paths of humility, reconciliation, and peace.

Listen to this setting of Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace” (The Prayer of St. Francis) by John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers.

 

 

 

 

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 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!