Empowering Congregations

Coronavirus Chronicles

When In Doubt...

Usually, we, Christians, would be riding hight on the resurrection.  “Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!”  But due to the stay at home orders that are in place for our region, we are not riding anywhere.  Grocery store runs limited to the essentials and only once per week if possible.

And it doesn't feel like we are living in post- resurrection reality.  As I shared with the members of Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. this past Sunday, we are somewhere in between Good Friday and Holy Saturday. We are still waiting for the resurrection, still waiting for the sign that the coast is clear.  Consequently, we may have our doubts.
 
But, don't panic.  One of Jesus' disciples, Thomas says, “Prove it.”  Though he has been with the other disciples for three years now, he will not take their word for it.  Perhaps, the resurrection of Jesus Christ sounds too good to be true.  Maybe he wanted to share in the experience and wanted a “do over.”  So often, his words are considered a crisis of faith.
 
Called "doubting Thomas," He is named for a one- time response.  I mean, we are called believers.  We cannot have doubt and faith at the same time, right?  The two don’t mix and should not meet in the mouth of a Christian.  We always believe, right?
 
While Thomas is only one of twelve, he does represent countless believers who wrestle with their faith, who doubt the miraculous, who will believe it when they see it.  Thomas is hands on when it comes to his faith.  He requires that his senses be engaged.  Their report will not suffice.
 
William Sloane Coffin said, “Faith isn't believing without proof; it's trusting without reservation.”  I wonder if his words change the way we hear Thomas' story, that it is not a matter of belief but trust.  Can we consider Thomas as proof that we can call on Jesus when in doubt and he will come to us?  

It is my sincere hope that Christian leaders are preparing themselves to entertain the doubts of other believers.  It, too, is an exercise of faith.  When in doubt, I pray that they can come to you and your community and faith.  May your testimonies point to the resurrected Christ.  Amen.

 

 

Keeping the Faith,

 

Rev. Starlette Thomas

Praying during a pandemic: Hand in glove

Hand in glove, COVID-19 sees most American hands in gloves.  We are not quick to touch, are slow to pick up and there is no discussion of “reaching out to touch somebody’s hand.”  No, we “make this world a better place” by staying home.  Once unknown due to long commutes and ever- increasing work hours, we now know our homes like the back of our hands.  We are so tired of scrubbing the front and backs of our hands.  For thousands of people now, this prescription is much too late.
 
And still, we wait for the on- time God, wondering if we got our schedules mixed up and if our heads are screwed on straight.  Because God is never late.  Are we really in the midst of a global pandemic?  Is America becoming a valley of the shadow of death, a valley of dry bones, dead bodies that we have no room for?  Is God not coming to stop these mass funerals and burials?
 
Morgues are full and Jesus’s tomb is empty.  What do we make of this?  He showed his wounds but body contagious, we can’t touch their faces or say goodbye to those who die of this virus.  And I don’t know if we will ever be able to catch up on all the grief.  We’ve loss so much already.
 
And Pentecost is coming; it is God’s fresh wind as we hear reports of thousands upon thousands taking their last breaths.  We take deep breaths and try to keep our composure, certain of the Christian calendar but not of what comes next.  More days inside, more time within, no longer able to avoid ourselves due to our capitalistically consumed and intentionally crowded lives.  We cry out, “Jesus!”  
 
Estimated incubation periods, models of the virus’s spread and the ever- increasing tally of the diseased and the dead, none of this makes sense.  We scratch our heads.  We can’t put our heads together, so we put our hands together.  Clasped and squeezed tight, we are so overwhelmed that our words don’t come out right.  Some of us can’t even find the words so we moan and sigh, pace the floor and cry, shout and shake our fists at the sky.  
 
“Do You hear me, God?  What more do I have to say to You?  Does this not warrant Your attention?  Do You not see what is happening in Your world?”
 
This is the power of prayer; it is the ability to talk it out.  Prayer is theology being worked out, where we say it and then scratch it out, where it all comes together for God to sort it out.  But we must do our part.  Not simply flinging words upward and hoping it all falls into place.  

No easy answers and no twenty- four hour good news cycle.  I'm sorry.  No, sometimes, we are the answer to our own prayers. Prayer and gloves, like hand in glove, they go together.  Amen.

 

 

Keeping the Faith,

 

Rev. Starlette Thomas

Coronavirus Sunday

 

Coronavirus Church Guide

Guidance for Clergy for Funerals, Memorials due to COVID-19

When God Leaves You Hanging

A Service of Lament

Double For Your Trouble

Questioning our response to suffering during a pandemic

“God’s going to give you double for your trouble.”  I suspect it’s a rough summary, a gross reduction of the outcome of Job’s life after he suffered immense of loss material and familial.  A popular sentiment in certain segments of the Christian diaspora, it is used to explain suffering.  It is an expression that is not unlike “no pain, no gain.”  The saying suggests that suffering pays and will pay off in the end.  It will all be worth it.
 
“No cross, no crown.”  We will be rewarded a nice shiny thing.  Like participation certificates, everyone gets a copy.  We speak as if they go hand in hand, like it all balances out.  But suffering does not feel rewarding and I don’t want a gift for my pain.  
 
More than a month into the quarantine with many businesses and all schools closed, persons are doing double duty: parent- pastor, mother- teacher, dad- school nurse and spouse- caretaker.  Persons are doubling up on supplies for fear of running out.
 
The pandemic is piling on as many Americans experience crisis on top of crisis.   Five weeks in and only God knows how many more to go, persons are thinking more intentionally about their life and its meaning.  We would do well as Christians to think more carefully about the language we employ when persons are suffering.  Death on a global scale, this will not be small talk.  
 
Just because it rhymes doesn’t mean that it is the reason.

 

Keeping the Faith,

 

Rev. Starlette Thomas

The Least We Can Do

“… ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”

| Matthew 25.45, NRSV

This global pandemic caused by COVID- 19 is revealing where our priorities lie and it is most often not with the vulnerable.  Plans on a national, state and local level often leave out the poor, the elderly, the battered, the addicted, the homeless and the mentally conflicted.  Our photo ops do not include them or their sufferings; their predicaments are not photogenic.  We crop them out.

Still, this crisis will not be solved by drawing party lines or circles around the groups that are worth saving.  Some suggest that it is the “survival of the fittest.”  “Let the weak die off” is what is being presented by politicians and commentators alike.  Portrayed as a valiant death, they do not die in vain but to save this generation and the next, they argue. 

“Let us get back to work.  Yes, we will lose lives.  But it will save our economy.”  Profits over people, it is the American way.   

Wiping out entire people groups and age groups, these persons are suggesting that some lives are more valuable than others, that they need to die in order to make this country a better place. 

Trampled over, they are the path of least resistance.  But this is not Jesus’ way.  He reverses the order of things: “the last will be first, the first will be last” and changes human nature’s course (Matthew 20.16).  He chooses to identify with those we wouldn’t be caught dead with.  After sharing parables on the ten bridesmaids and the talents, he becomes one: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25.35-36).  Jesus comes in last place and is among the least likely to succeed.
 
This is not to be confused with paying it forward.  No, service is the price of admission into God’s kingdom.  The righteous want to know, “When did this happen?” and when did they see Jesus is such dire straits.  “Did I miss something here?”
 
Jesus comes to the earth and to our attention the hard way.  During the Lenten season, we were reminded that the image of Jesus includes the vulnerable.  But he does more than identify with them or simply understand their predicament.  He shares in it. 
 
The frail, the dependent, the needy, the undisciplined, all these groups Jesus is found in.  These are the circles Jesus travels in, the people that Jesus hangs out with, ends up just like and sees himself most in.  Consequently, it is not even the least that we can do but it is the only thing that we can do.  We are not taking care of them for Jesus or even in the name of Jesus but we are taking care of Jesus.  Because Jesus, the Son of God, sees himself as vulnerable in the hands of the world.

Yes, our practice of ministry has changed as lay and ordained leaders.  But our pedagogy has not.  Jesus's words are underlined in red; it is impossible for us to miss what he said.  Still, hunkered down, we are going from house to house one phone call, one email, one prayer line, one Zoom meeting, one Facebook and YouTube live-streamed service at a time-- just to get his message across.
 

God, who shows up in places unexpected and with the least likely to people unsuspecting, challenging our vulnerable theologies and the ways in which our faith has come to be, remind us that You rolled up the sleeves of divinity and that You got to work alongside the uninsured, the day laborer, the single parent, the immigrant, the infirm, that You not only took on their way of life but that You lived and die without much fanfare just like they do today.  
Amen.

 .

 

Keeping the Faith,

 

Rev. Starlette Thomas

Celebrating Easter: Connected through his death

We are prepared to live and to live life to the fullest.  We are told to push life to the limits, to do and be all that we can be.  We are encouraged to live life in the fast lane because you only live once. “Do it while you can.  Do it while you’re young.  But, by all means, live!”

 

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are American ideals and the American way. And our capitalist system has for sale a myriad of ways to express and experience them all.  For monthly installments or a one- time fee, we can describe a period of our lives as a good time “while supplies last.”  But, Jesus makes no such claims.  He guarantees none of these conditions.  

 

Life with Jesus will involve death and there is no commercial, commercial break or coupon for this.  Because his way is not American or any other.  He says to disciples then and now, “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12.25, NRSV).  Jesus does not hide reality from us.  He is not a salesperson but the Savior, “full of grace and truth” (John 1.14).

 

He does not promise us a good life but he does model a good death.

 

This is the all- inclusive discipleship package: “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16.24).  All roads lead to Calvary.  But when there is death all around and by the thousands, his message hits closer to home.  Yes, we are talking about a spiritual death but it is morbid none the less when we have already lost so much.  Yes, Jesus will rise but first he must be buried in a tomb.  We know where they put his body; but in some cities, for dead bodies, there is no room.

 

How then will we celebrate Holy Week and Easter?  Pastors around the world are asking themselves this question.  It is both a technological and theological challenge.  What is the good news in the midst of a global pandemic?  How shall they hear the preacher when they are hunkered down, hoarding essentials and their worst fears are happening in real time?  By God’s grace.

 

It is all that we have and it is enough.  We are connected through Jesus’s death and so he knows how we feel.  He is acquainted with, familiar with, friends with our grief (Isaiah 53.3).  They know each other by name.  You can talk to Jesus about it.  

 

God is with us.  We are still connected even in these desperate and dire days.  Even in death and because of his body, we are in this together.

 .

 

Keeping the Faith,

 

Rev. Starlette Thomas

Finding meaning in this global pandemic that the Coronavirus (also known as COVID- 19) has caused is premature as the death toll rises and now the number etches closer to 25,000 globally.  The number of confirmed cases of infection at nearly 550,000.  These are not numbers; these are people.  This is not your regularly scheduled programming as there is nothing common about this virus and it is certainly not business as usual.

 

In fact, businesses are closed: movie theaters, coffee shops, restaurants.  People over profits, most have decided that engaging in commerce is not the most important thing that we can do right now.  The activity of buying and selling will not slow the spread of the virus.  This has changed our routines or we have lost them altogether.  We are no longer coming and going as we please.  And what day is it anyway? 

 

We are also down to the bare minimums and at the very least, we get the essentials.  COVID- 19 is showing us what we can live without and what our lives are really about.  Death is literally outside our doors.  So, this is not the time to talk of silver linings, bright spots, upsides or any such meaning- making.  Morgues are overcrowded and funerals will have to wait.  All of our emotions bottled up as we pace inside of four walls.

No, now is the time for lament.  We are grieving the loss of lives and life as we have known it.  When this is all over, things will not fall back neatly into place.  Because all of the world is experiencing this trauma together and it has changed us all.  Everyone has been affected though not infected.

 

As the D.C. Baptist Convention, we have also lost a member of our body at Fort Foote Baptist Church.  Whether an arm, a foot, an elbow or a finger, it makes no difference.  His absence is felt and we are crippled in some way without him.  Fort Foote Baptist Church has lost a member of its fellowship to the Coronavirus.  It has already hit so close to our homes; we have closed our doors and closed ourselves off to the outside world.  And yet, here it is. 

 

The doors of the Church remain open so long as we are a body and not a building.  Consequently, I invite you to share in their sorrow and cry out in lament with our dear sisters and brothers in Fort Washington, Maryland.   Because we “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12.15).  I have also attached a service of lament for those of us who are not familiar with this spiritual practice and who may be experiencing grief of one kind or another.  It is inspired by Jesus’s cry of lament from the cross after God goes AWOL as it were.  I have also included Elisabeth Kubler- Ross’s five stages of grief.

 

Be good to yourself and to each other.  I remain committed to you.  You are not the alone.  We are all in this together.

 

Keeping the Faith,

 

Rev. Starlette Thomas

District of Columbia Baptist Convention

1628 Sixteenth Street NW Washington, DC 20009

202.265.1526

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