Last week I encountered a feeling that I never, ever imagined that I could feel, and the encounter left me feeling shaken and uncertain in a time of uncertainty. I felt doom. Doom. As Dictionary.com defines, I felt “unavoidable ill fortune” and for a moment or two or a hundred, I did not see any way or anything that could stop the doom from descending upon me and the whole world. The moment that I recognized the feeling was painful to endure. I simply stared out the window, trying to face the feeling as I said its name over and over, knowing also, deep inside, that I could not stay in that space—in that place.
Yesterday was the first Sunday at the beginning of my second year as the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Parkersburg and I must admit that last year this time, I had no idea how the first year would end. None of us did and I can tell you that suspending Sunday morning worship for 12 weeks and then moving to in person worship with masked, vast social distancing is not what I envisioned. At this point last year, the thought of the world in the midst of a pandemic was beyond imagination. And yet, here we are.
In the beginning of this second year, the congregation and I have a question to explore and answer together: In these days of pandemic and uncertainty, how are we to be the church—the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood, in ministry to all the world? Actually, pandemic or not, the question before us is always how we are to be the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood, in ministry to all the world, but this year, I find this question is suddenly more difficult to answer.
I began thinking about this question, especially the last three weeks or so, while I took some time off, just to rest and regroup after this spring that suddenly plunged me and colleagues around the world into uncharted territory and left me, and probably everyone else, feeling exhausted with the strain of learning new ways to connect, new ways to offer compassion and good information, new ways to open the doors of church, where doors could no longer be opened. We made it through Lent. We made it through Easter. We made it through Pentecost and much of June. What now?
I found myself longing for something that would offer me grounding, would be strong beneath my feet, would hold me up in those dark moments of uncertainty that are sure to return. I wanted a verse to guide this new year, a theme verse that would be the foundation of this next year of ministry, a verse that my congregation and I could explore together. Unexpectedly, in the midst of that yearning, one bright, sunny morning in the last week of June, Micah 6:8 came to my mind and stayed.
“God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God.”
Wow! I have always loved this verse. I have used it at countless weddings and funerals and other times of worship. Often it has been a verse to test my decision about something. Is what I am thinking or preaching or teaching doing justice? Is it loving kindness? Am I walking humbly with God?
I knew in, a moment, that this verse I love so dearly is the verse to guide my congregation and me through the next year that seems so unsettled and ambiguous at the moment. These four short lines spell out the framework for all of us as we seek to live our lives following Christ, for in the midst of his Gospel message, is the core of Micah’s message. When we follow Christ, we are seeking to live a life of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.
Micah was born into a pandemic world of sorts. It was a pandemic not of illness, but of crisis and corruption. The writer of this Old Testament book was a village peasant whose name meant Who is like Yahweh? Imagine having a name like that—one that bids you to contemplate what God is like every time someone calls you. The whole of his life must have been a contemplation of life in the midst of the Holy One, who loves us deeply and challenges us to a life shaped by justice and kindness. Micah was also a poet, and a prophet. He was from a small village outside of Jerusalem, so he was not part of the elite and honestly, hardly anyone might have taken notice of him, except God called him to challenge–to declare to society around him that there was a crisis and something needed to be done.
Micah had a unique place among the common, everyday people to observe what they understood as the shameless and threatening control of the Jerusalem government that sought to lift up those in power and those with wealth. Coming out of a time when Judah and Israel both prospered and the superpowers of the day were preoccupied and didn’t bother them, Assyria rose to power and revealed disaster, downfall and defeat for Judah and Israel who had not seen it coming. The people felt worried and helpless. The poor and marginalized were taxed and taxed and their voices ignored.
Doom descended on God’s people.
Into this doom, Micah was called to prophesy to the leaders—the government leaders, the merchant leaders, even the religious leaders—where the rich and powerful used their influence to exploit the vulnerable. In the midst of these days, the wealth that might have been used to help the weakest and most vulnerable in society was used to buy off Assyria. It had to come from somewhere. Micah stepped forward to proclaim God’s compassion for the poor and dispossessed and to hold leaders accountable for the widespread suffering.
Micah stepped forward with poetic prophecy to call the people to repentance:
Alas for those who devise wickedness
And evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
Because it is in their power.
They covet fields, and seize them;
Houses, and take them away;
They oppress householder and house,
People and their inheritance. (Micah 2:1-2, NRSV)
Micah, as prophet, set the stage with his poetry, to tell the people that God can become angry when we make choices and behave in ways that are opposite from God’s nature and name, which is Love. Micah is clear that the calamities that follow are not God’s punishment but are the consequences of decisions that have been made.
Micah knew, as all prophets know, as many preachers know, that the task of the prophet, and preacher, can be very painful. Truth is not always easy to speak, but sometimes truth lays claim on the prophet and preacher and compels them to speak, knowing that the message is difficult. Sometimes it is a message of doom and the message of doom will bring personal pain to all. We can hear it in Micah’s words:
On that day they shall take up a taunt
Song against you,
And wail with bitter lamentation,
And say, “We are utterly ruined;
The Lord alters the inheritance of my people;
How he removes it from me!
Among our captors he parcels out our fields. (Micah 2:4, NRSV)
Personal pain. Destruction. Doom.
But the words of Micah do not end there. There is hope that shimmers in the darkness of doom. Within the beautiful poetry are words of redemption, of life and love, and justice—a vision that Micah cast to those who would listen:
In the days to come
The mountain of the Lord’s house
Shall be established as the highest of the mountains
And shall be raised up above the hills
People shall stream to it
And many nations shall come and say:
Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord
To the house of the God of Jacob;
That he may teach us his ways
And that we may walk in his paths.
This is a beautiful vision that Micah paints for us, but it brings us to another question that we must consider. What is it that the people must do to get to this point—the mountain of God? What must the leaders do? What must all the people do to dispel the impending doom?
What does God require?
Sacrifices? Burnt offerings? Thousands of rams? Money? First-born children?
Eloquently, beautifully, poetically, Micah proclaimed what God requires of us: To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God? (Micah 6:8)
These are words of inspiration.
These are words of comfort.
These are words of hope.
I felt it as soon as I opened my eyes this past Wednesday morning. It was as if the early morning shadow light added to what I was feeling, clouding over any other positive notion that the beginning of a new day might bring. And it was a feeling that I never remember having before, in all of my life.
Doom. I felt doom.
Within my being there was an overwhelming feeling of dread, of agony that things are destined to be this way and worse. In that waking moment I felt that no matter what I know or what I could say, no matter what I do or what I offer or hope for could eliminate the growing shadow of doom that is present and extends beyond the horizon these days.
It was a horrible feeling. It was a horrible way to wake up. It was horrible realizing that I could feel doom, but there it was, waking me up, trying to seep into my very being.
It wasn’t just one crisis that cast doom over me that morning. It was everything. Confirmed coronavirus cases in the US topped 60,000 that day and topped 71,000 on Friday and on that morning of doom I wondered how it would ever stop? There is no real plan to stop this pandemic, to curb this pandemic, to help with those who are in the midst of this pandemic. In that moment it felt overwhelming. It still does.
On that morning I wondered if I would ever be able to finish my Doctor of Ministry degree that meets at Cambridge in England. On that morning, I suddenly missed my classmates, my professors, my friends that I have made in England because of this program. I wonder, with fear, if I would ever be able to travel again. What about going to my beloved Germany again? Essentially our passports are worthless. No one wants us to come visit. Maybe there would never be a chance to travel again.
All the other issues that our world struggles with—famine, hunger, poverty, employment, healthcare, refugees from war and other situations, climate change, fear—have been made worse because of the uncertainties of the pandemic.
There is a divisiveness in my country that I have never witnessed before. There are people who are struggling to be heard. There is violence that has disrupted, maybe because of the other tensions that have engulfed us all. Over and over, I read of such division that this pandemic has caused.
Teachers are concerned.
Families are concerned.
Healthcare workers are concerned.
Those who have lost jobs are concerned.
I can go on and on naming each part of the doom that I felt Wednesday morning. But I won’t. However, I will say again that I have never felt that way before.
I. Felt. Doom.
One thing I do know. The best medicine for the feeling of doom, or anything else that ails me, is to spend more time with God. So, as soon as I could, I went to the outdoor labyrinth at the Presbyterian church, near where my church is located. The labyrinth is a prayer walk, a path that can settle us when we walk and pray. I walked it slowly, breathing as deeply as I could. It was already humid, and the bright sun was already very warm, but the combination somehow began to chase away the darkness of the doom that I had felt earlier. As I walked slowly, with God, I found myself saying these words over and over: “walk humbly with God.”
When I reached the center and started out again, I found myself saying the words over and over:
Walk humbly with God.”
With each step I put in front of another, these words poured out of my heart:
Walk humbly with God.”
When I finished, the doom had retreated somewhat, but not completely, and I realized that I was not yet ready to face people. Around the walkways and paths surrounding the labyrinth are summer flowers, blooming. Purples and pinks, yellows and greens caught my eye.
And I could hear buzzing.
I walked over to a clump of purple dense blazing stars to see what was buzzing. Are you familiar with that flower? They are tall, spikey flowers that stand proud and are just the perfect height for me to observe their welcomed guests, the bees. There, in the tallest, purple bloom was a beautiful bumblebee, doing what bumblebees are supposed to do. Pollinating.
Bees make me happy. I love watching them. They are a sign of hope for me, that life will go on, that despite what humans are doing to the planet, there is part of God’s creation that continues to offer gifts of life, but as I watched this bumblebee, I noticed that all was not well. One of its wings was damaged. It appeared to be glued down and did not move with the other one. The bee could not fly.
I know a little about bees as I grew up watching my grandfather care for his hives. As bees get older the wings become damaged or appear ragged from the exposure to the elements. That is one way that you can tell an older bee. The best thing to do is to leave it alone. Bees only live a few weeks anyway, but they are busy and determined in their short lives and we depend upon them to pollinate blossoms which turn into food.
I watched this tiny creature with awe and respect. Despite the damage to its wing, it was determined to continue with its task, so it continued to move around the bloom, around and around. It could have just fallen off and taken the last of its life easy, but it continued to pollinate the beautiful purple blossom.
As I watched this tiny, beautiful, marvelous bee, I realized that I was feeling more hopeful. The doom was beginning to ease up a bit and I could identify hope shimmering brightly.
What does the Lord require of me? What does the Lord require of us? In the midst of pandemics?
In the midst of crisis?
In the midst of uncertainty?
In the midst of doom?
The Lord requires us to make a choice that through us can offer hope to a hurting world. When we seek to do what is just, we keep learning about justice, we embrace justice, and we do justice. When we seek to love kindness, our very lives offer kindness and make a huge difference to those around us—maybe the difference between feeling doom and feeling hope. When we walk humbly with God, we discover all kinds of ways that God surrounds us, loves us, forgives us, and cherishes us, speaks to us, including through profound messages of hope from an old and very wise bumblebee.
What does the Lord require of us? To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
May it be so.