“Between Times”

 

I once mentioned in a sermon that I wasn’t a dog person. It seems your ears perk up at the mention of dogs. Because since then it’s become a refrain: “Now, I know you’re not a dog person. . . .” So today, I want to let you know that things have changed. I have become a dog person. The sweet, wily Ace is about 35 pounds, red-haired, strong and stubborn, calm and quiet. He has the cutest ears. It was late one evening, after Ace had been with us for just two days. He seemed agitated during our walk. Suddenly, he wriggled his head furiously. With one swift, elegant motion, his neck was free of both collar and leash. He paused and stared intently into my eyes for a fraction of a second, then he took off.

For the next few days, Ace orbited our house, yet fled at any sign of us. He would trot up our street, but always the other side. He would sun himself on the neighbors’ steps. We chased him, we yelled his name, we got down on our knees with treats . . . whenever he saw us, he bolted. Eventually we enlisted the Retrievers. Lindsay and Bailey became our coaches and cheerleaders. They explained the strategy: put up signs; track where he’s spotted on a google map; analyze his patterns of travel; set out food where he goes regularly; lead him to the food with “stink” trails consisting of broth and liquid smoke. Eventually, we would set up a trap wherever he consistently came to eat.

The twelve days and nights Ace was gone were terrible. It was hard, dirty work, putting up signs, making stink trails, acquiring and deploying mountains of cheap cat food, tuna, and cut-up hotdogs. When the sightings stopped coming for days at a time, depression and exhaustion filled the house. We stayed up into the wee hours watching for Ace. The Retrievers kept telling us not to give up, that we were doing great and that we would get “our boy” back. I’m overjoyed to report that Ace is now home and doing very well.

As we prepared to welcome him home again, our retriever friends sent us an article explaining, from a dog’s perspective, why a two week “shut-down” would be needed to help him adjust. No walks, just our yard. No travel, no other people or dogs. Here’s a snippet from that piece:

For the first two weeks, (sometimes even longer) a dog takes in the new environment, who is the top person, or animal, who ARE these people? By pushing a dog too fast, and throwing too much at the dog we look like we are not the leaders, and the dog can feel it MUST defend itself, as the leader is surely no one he has met so far! [1]

The article helped me decode the haunting look Ace gave me before he ran—part fear, part anger, part hurt and disappointment. It made me realize why he both wanted to come home and couldn’t bring himself to do so.

Perhaps we can all identify with Ace a bit right now. Who is our leader? Who will we trust? We long for those guiding us—governors, the president, faith leaders, scientists, medical folks—to be on the same page. We yearn for a coherent, coordinated response. We worry that the lack of unity will have tragic consequences. To what sources do we turn to when making daily decisions about our own safety and that of our community? The recent transition from “stay at home” to “stay safe” opens up many dilemmas, many cans of worms. We are existing in an exhausting in-between space in which we must make many complicated decisions every day about how to do the simplest things in our lives.

I’m deeply grateful for the wise, steady guidance of our Governor and Lieutenant Governor. I believe they are doing their best in an incredibly stressful situation. That said, it seems to me that under this extreme pressure, they have made decisions that are putting lives in danger. The public health data does not support “re-opening” Minnesota or resuming in-person worship. I am furious (and I know many Catholics are as well) about the way the Catholic bishops have pushed state leaders into a corner and forced them to loosen restrictions on public worship. From the day all this began, our Conference Minister, Shari Prestemon, has done an incredible job of leading our UCC congregations in Minnesota. She has sifted through all the best wisdom out there and has issued an excellent piece to guide us now. Above all, she urges us not to rush a return to in-person worship. She reminds us:

The question here is not whether our faith and faith communities are “essential” to our lives as people of faith; we know they are! The question is whether flinging open our church building doors is ‘“essential” to practicing our faith and advancing the recovery of our communities.[2]

Early next week you’ll receive a document by email that lays out how we will proceed for now, applying Shari’s recommendations to our particular situation. Please read it carefully and please do everything you can to abide by the practices that will help us all stay healthy.

In today’s text from the book of Acts, the disciples also find themselves in a confusing, uncertain, in-between time. I love how the biblical scholar C. Clifton Black describes today’s account of the days before and after Jesus’ Ascension. He says these verses are like a semi-colon between the two exclamation points of Easter and Pentecost. They describe a long unsettling pause between the resurrection of Jesus and the pouring out of the Spirit on the church.[3] As the book of Acts opens, Jesus tells the disciples to sit tight, to stay in Jerusalem. “Wait here” he says. The disciples want answers. What are they waiting for? Is this when the Messiah will defeat the Romans? Is the new day of freedom and peace finally here? Is it today that creation will be made well and whole again?

Jesus doesn’t have answers for them. God’s timing isn’t for us to know, he says. He urges them simply to wait in hope and expectation—wait to receive the gift of the Spirit, wait to be filled with her power and her clear guidance, wait to be called out into the world God loves. And then he disappears into the clouds, leaving them to linger in suspense.

Today we’re celebrating our graduates, including high school grads, Zach, Nelson and Emma and college grads Addie and Sam. I’ve been thinking a lot about them. Surely, they did not imagine they would conclude this important year of their lives by stopping all in-person activities and staying home. They haven’t gotten to say a proper goodbye to their teachers, their friends, or their school campuses. The ceremonies and celebrations are subdued and unsatisfying. They have missed out on too many special traditions and rituals to count. And now they are striking out into a world that is utterly chaotic. The future is not bright and shining. It’s uncertain, even ominous.

And yet, I trust, and I hope they can trust, that the guidance we need is on its way. The Spirit’s power is coming, to fill us with vision and strength and joy. Today’s text ends with the whole community of Jesus’ followers “constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” There are many kinds of prayer and meditation. They are all good. The practice of centering prayer is important to me. I believe it sheds light on what those first disciples of Jesus were doing in their between-time, and what we are called to do now. The key, in centering prayer, is intention, consent. Our part of the bargain is that we intend to be available to divine guidance. We consent to God’s presence and action within our hearts. We make a space for the Holy Spirit to fill us, guide us, and give us power to act. Beyond that, the work belongs to God. It seems to me that this is the sort of spiritual posture we need now.

Indian author Arundhati Roy calls the pandemic a “portal.” She says:

Coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality,” trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas,  our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.[4]

Amen.

[1] (Retrievers, “Two week shut-down, dog perspective”)\

[2] https://files.constantcontact.com/73d71b6a001/a13cba0f-5326-4151-944a-fcdc0869c5ef.pdf

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=63

[4] https://www.yesmagazine.org/video/coronavirus-pandemic-arundhati-roy/