What a Plague and a Pandemic Have in Common: by Prasanta Verma

In the book of Joel, a devastating event occurs, something which will be retold to subsequent generations:

Has anything like this happened  in your days, or even in the days of your fathers? Tell your children about it, Let your children tell their children, and their children another generation. Joel 1: 2-3

What sort of calamity could this be, what sort of story so incredulous that it could be recounted to future generations? It was a plague of locusts.

Can you imagine looking up and seeing the sky turn dark as millions of these insects descended upon the land you occupied? These insects are described as “chewing, swarming, crawling, and consuming” locusts. The scripture says that the fig tree branches were stripped white. The result of the plague was utter loss and devastation. The people of this agricultural society had lost everything– their crops, grass for their animals, their livelihood. Nothing green was left. They looked upon a barren wasteland.

Did you know there are 80 different kinds of locusts?  They belong to the grasshopper family. A typical swarm can be 30 miles long and 5 miles wide, and even today, swarms affect Australia and Africa.

After facing the devastation of such a loss, we can wonder how those in Judah felt. Their dreams were shattered. Their hopes gnawed away by the locusts. What would become of them now? Their dreams and hopes of the future? How would they survive?

My Bible commentary suggests that Joash could have been the king at the time. While it’s not certain, it is possible. Joash was crowned king at the tender age of 7. Humor me for a moment, as we ponder what a seven-year-old king might be thinking while watching a swarm of locusts descend upon the land.

If Joash were like any current day typical seven-year-old boy, he may have tried to catch a few of the insects himself and put them in a place where he could observe them for a while. Or, perhaps young Joash, after the initial  excitement, may have been affected by the horror-stricken faces of the adults around him, and also succumbed to fear, helplessness, and disbelief. One thing is certain: a plague of locusts (or other natural disaster) is beyond the power and control of any earthly king, no matter his age.

But not for an omnipotent God. He had an answer for them. He didn’t leave them destitute, alone, holding fistfuls of dirt in their hands. He gave them a promise:

So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten… Joel 2:25

“I will restore to you the years.” What a beautiful promise, from the only One who can even make such a claim and fulfill it. God’s promise to the people of Judah was that he would “restore the years”! That promise is magnificent to comprehend. Who, except God, can even restore time?

You see, today, we face a different breed of locust. We face broken marriages, sudden death, disease, financial ruin, chronic pain, depression, job loss, addiction, plus the losses brought about because of the pandemic. And, the list can go on.

Yet consider that the promise to us is the same as it was to the people in Joel’s day: “God will restore the years the locusts have eaten.” God says,

Behold, I will send you grain and new wine and new oil, and you will be satisfied with them. –  Joel 2:19

God comforts and reassures the people facing the loss produced by the locust plague, promising to send them new grain and wine, and to “restore to them the years”. The loss was devastating and the promise itself is equally as astounding. Can you imagine the hope of the people of Judah, upon hearing such a promise? We have such promises, too, such as:

 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. – Matthew 11:28-30

I don’t know about you, but these promises give me hope. Hope I need to hear. While the locusts may have eaten away, God can restore what the locusts have taken. God can take the loss, even produced by a pandemic, and transform it into something new – into a garden of plenty, a place where hope and joy bloom in full glory, a place where others can come and find encouragement and hope as well. He restores us and promises to give us rest. On this Ash Wednesday, we find rest for our souls, and promises of restoration, even in the midst of snowstorms, personal losses, and a pandemic.

(this post is edited from the archives of prasantaverma.com)


Prasanta Verma, a poet, writer, and artist, is a member of The Contemplative Writer team. Born under an Asian sun, raised in the Appalachian foothills, Prasanta currently lives in the Midwest, is a mom of three, and also coaches high school debate. You can find her on Twitter @VermaPrasanta, Instagram prasanta_v_writer, and at her website: https://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/.

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

It’s time for Friday Favorites! Find prayer, hope, healing — and encouragement to keep writing and creating no matter your circumstances — in this week’s collection of posts and podcasts.

Wishing you all God’s blessings,

Lisa and Prasanta

***

A Litany of Healing for a Time of COVID via Christine Sine (a prayer for healing during this time of suffering)

My Porch Is My Pilgrimage via James Laurence (a poem for shelter-in-place pilgrims)

Whatever Tomb You’re In via Tammy Perlmutter (although all may seem lost, your rescue is already in play)

Making Christians Great Again via Leslie Leyland Fields (“This leader is like no other. He bent like a slave to wash His people’s feet. He chose our lashes instead of His power…”)

Susanna Clarke on Piranesi, Illness, and Faith via Church Times (in this podcast episode, listen to Clarke talk about her novels and her struggles towards faith)

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Relying on Perfect Conditions to Write via Cassandra Lipp (how to write when your circumstances change, you’re too busy, and so on and so on…)


WEEKLY PRAYER: MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we pray with the minister and civil rights activist for peace and enemy love.

***

God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn.

Source


The Way Up Is Down by Marlena Graves


This week I’m thrilled to share an (adapted) excerpt from Marlena Graves’s book, The Way Up Is Down. You may have already heard about this book: it was published in July 2020 and won a 2021 Christianity Today Award of Merit. I wanted to draw attention to it because it is such an important read for our contemplative community. In the first few pages, Marlena quotes Teresa of Avila, and then she goes on to dialogue with other historical and contemplative figures like Macrina the Younger, Saint Benedict, and the church fathers.

Above all, Marlena goes deep into Scripture to teach us about emptying ourselves and embracing a life of following Jesus. Enjoy this excerpt from chapter two of The Way Up Is Down.

***

Down Low With Jesus

None of us knows what we don’t know unless our eyes are opened. My first revelation was the cafeteria lunch ticket. It was on display for all to see when I handed it to the lunch lady. No way to be discrete. Its bright color marked me as eligible for a free lunch.

Sometimes sheer embarrassment over being known as poor kept me from eating lunch. My free lunch ticket: a stigma. Of course, if I were really hungry and knew I’d return home to an empty refrigerator when I stepped off of the school bus, I swallowed my pride and presented the lunch ticket. More indications.

Upon returning from Puerto Rico in fifth grade, someone derogatorily asked, “Are you black?” Until then, I didn’t know I looked different from others. Now, as a bleached out biracial Puerto Rican, I am blanquita. Then, I was darker. As a child and teenager, I didn’t know I had an accent until my best friend’s mother told me I did. Now, I am told I have no accent.

However, it was as an employee at a Christian college that I became acutely aware of the economic, cultural, and racial disparity in my environments. It was at the Christian college that I learned how underprivileged I was.

After Brenda Salter-McNeil, a thought leader in the area of racial reconciliation, led a large room full of people in an activity dubbed the “Race Race,” everything made sense. The starting line was masking tape laid down across the middle of an all-purpose classroom. Dr. Salter-McNeil asked a series of questions like: Did you go to summer camps? Did your parents attend college? Did you qualify for free and reduced lunches? Are you a woman? and Are you an ethnic minority? Our answers determined whether we took steps forward or backward. At the end of fifty questions, I was at the back of the room with one of my best friends, an African American woman. Almost dead last. Way behind the starting line, not to mention the finish line.

When everyone turned to see who was last, I stood there humiliated. This time my answers to the questions, not my lunch ticket, exposed me as a have not. Until then I had no idea how underprivileged I was. I thought I was doing well. However, even though my ethnicity, gender, and economic status of my family of origin were not under my control, they affected everything. I can’t escape the facts of my life even with lunch money and a refrigerator full of groceries. I was born into last place or nearly last place. Even with the privileges I have now, I’ll never be able to catch up with those who started ahead of me. That day, I discovered that even with my education and ability to think, fundamentally, I was still on society’s and the American church’s bottom of the pecking order. I was a bottom dweller.

Growing up and even into my adulthood, I despaired over the hand I was dealt. I often begged God to explain why the cards were stacked against me as a Hispanic-Latina woman born into a poor family that was plagued by the effects of mental illness. I used to despair a lot, but not as much anymore. Yes, there are instances. But I don’t remain in self-pity for long stretches of time. On these occasions I am reminded that the gospel is especially good news for the poor, people on the lowest rungs of society, people like me and my family of origin. God gives grace to the humble. Though I am haunted by the effects of generational poverty, though I may have been born on the lowest rung in America, in many ways I am rich.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:3 (KJV). People like me and my kind may be deemed poor and stupid and not worthy of a second glance. Animals to be caged. Not worthy to be anybody’s teacher. But if your poverty and my poverty and deprivation (whatever form poverty takes in our lives) produce in us poverty of spirit, if our humiliations produce in us humility and dependence on God, then we shall be exalted now—in our lives with God—and in the life to come.

Rich.

These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word. (Isaiah 66:2) When I remember what is true, instead of obsessing about non-truth or the hierarchies and idols associated with money, power, and fame, I can rejoice.

I am bidding farewell to worldly status. Along with Mary and Jesus, I am throwing my lot in with others who by the world’s standards are disinherited and found at the bottom of all the hierarchies. Because I’ve found that God turns our hierarchies and our worldly values on their heads. It is only in our poverty and our intentional renunciation of worldly status seeking—in emptying ourselves of those ambitions—that we are ever open to being filled to the brim with grace. We cannot become full of God’s life when we are chasing status, recognition, and honor from the world or the Christian culture—that only leads us to outer darkness. Like Jesus, we are to seek the lowest place and figure out exactly what that means for our particular lives. So, with Mary I marvel and sing:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call
me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of
their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
(Luke 1:46-53 ESV)

If we humble ourselves by seeking the lowest place, we will be exalted. God will fill those of us who are hungry and empty and poor with good things as we look to him to feed us and fill us.


Adapted from The Way Up Is Down  by Marlena Graves. Copyright © 2020 by Marlena Graves. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com  

God the Fugitive

Today we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany! Following a star, Magi from the East came to worship the Christ Child. This season in the church year invites us to witness the manifestation of Christ to the world. (Epiphany, by the way, is also a season; it begins today and ends, in some churches, the day before Ash Wednesday.)

Shortly after the Magi visited Jesus, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” (Matthew 2:13) Joseph and his family escaped in the night in an event often referred to as the Flight into Egypt.

Giotto, Flight into Egypt, Srovegni Chapel, ca. 1304-1306

During this time of year, differing interpretations of the Flight into Egypt begin “flying” around, many concerning the status of Jesus and his family as refugees. Some say that Jesus was a refugee because he fled government persecution. Others counter he wasn’t a refugee because, technically, he didn’t flee to a foreign country.

I think the terms and technicalities sometimes trip us up. In her book, The God Who Sees, author and immigration activist Karen Gonzalez notes that the ancient world did not have the same concept of and fixation on borders as we do today. So, where Jesus went is perhaps less important than why: Jesus and his parents fled persecution from a ruler, finding refuge in a land not their home. Gonzalez says, “In modern terms, we would say that Jesus and his parents are refugees.”

One of my favorite medieval authors, Jean Gerson, states this in a very striking way. Gerson was a fifteenth-century French scholar and the chancellor of the University of Paris. In ca. 1415, he wrote a narrative poem, the Josephina, celebrating the life and faith of Jesus’ earthly father, St. Joseph. The poem includes all kinds of scenes about the daily life of the holy family. And it begins with the Flight into Egypt. Towards the beginning of the poem, Gerson makes a statement that stopped me cold when I first read it:

“Deus est fugitivus et advena.” Let’s look at the terms in this statement. Fugitivus means fugitive. Advena means foreigner or stranger. Hence we have the striking pronouncement:

God is a fugitive and a foreigner.

I’ve often wondered why Gerson uses the term “fugitive.” We often think of a fugitive as someone who flees “the long arm of the law.” But it can also describe a person who flees to escape danger or persecution. Merriam-Webster suggests “refugee” as a synonym.

I also think it’s important that in the passage, Gerson uses the word “Deus” instead of “Christus” or “Jesus.” Jesus and God are, of course, one and the same, but the name “God” carries huge implications. God, as in – the Lord Almighty. The Creator. The God of the universe. So think about that for a minute: The God of the universe became a fugitive.

And it’s not just God who needs and seeks refuge. After the Holy Family arrives in Egypt, Gerson writes that each one of us is like them—we are strangers and foreigners.

Whoever you are, deeply longing to be citizens of the heavenly country,
act in this way,
thus remembering to contemplate the fact that you are a foreigner.
Let Christ, Joseph, and Mary be an example to you.

As fugitives who had to settle in a land not their own, the Holy Family are to be examples for every Christian. We are all strangers passing through this world.

The Flight into Egypt also shows us that God identifies very strongly with strangers on the margins of the world—with the persecuted, the powerless, the poor, the refugees, and the fugitives. We are to see Jesus in them. Gonzalez says, “Jesus reminds us in Matthew 25 that when we welcome foreigners and others in vulnerable situations, we welcome him.”

Let us remember that during this season. As we reflect on the Flight into Egypt —

May we see our fugitive selves in Jesus.
May we see Jesus in our fugitive neighbors.
May we see God’s heart for all those on the margins of this great big world.

***

Note: For Gerson’s poem, see Brian Patrick McGuire’s essay in The Making of Christian Communities in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (pp. 131-152). I would also like to thank Randy Blacketer for his translation of some of Gerson’s Latin text.

WEEKLY PRAYER: WALTER BRUEGGEMANN

This week’s Advent prayer is from the theologian and author Walter Brueggemann.

***

In our secret yearnings
we wait for your coming,
and in our grinding despair
we doubt that you will.

And in this privileged place
we are surrounded by witnesses who yearn more than do we
and by those who despair more deeply than  do we.

Look upon your church and its pastors
in this season of hope
which runs so quickly to fatigue
and in this season of yearning
which becomes so easily quarrelsome.

Give us the grace and the impatience
to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes,
to the edges of our finger tips.

We do not want our several worlds to end.

Come in your power
and come in your weakness
in any case
and make all things new.

Amen.

Source

From Exile to Pilgrim: A Christmas Story

Thanks be to God, through whom our consolation overflows
in this pilgrimage, in this exile, in this distress.

This is one of my favorite quotations from the history of the Church, uttered by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a Cistercian monk, abbot, and theologian. I love it because it touches on one of my favorite themes, pilgrimage. I recently discovered that the quotation comes from St. Bernard’s Sermons on Advent and Christmas. I’m excited because one of my favorite sentiments turns out to be part of the Christmas story!

The quote is about more than pilgrimage. Here and elsewhere, Bernard places heavy emphasis on the theme of exile. Throughout his sermons he often uses the word “exile” to refer to our sojourn on this earth. As exiles, we are wanderers who do not have a true home. We walk a hard road, filled with suffering. We are in distress.

But then. Then! Bernard precedes the sentence quoted above with this statement: “The kindness and humanity of God our Savior appeared.” In the person of Jesus, God appeared at Christmas (and was made known at the Epiphany). And this changed everything. Through his humanity, Jesus joined us in our exile. Bernard says:

He Who is glorious and transcendent in His own city, and beatifies its citizens by His presence, became little and humble, when in exile, that He might rejoice the exiles.

This is why Bernard says, “Thanks be to God!” At Christmas, Jesus came to us in our exile. To rejoice us and give us consolation.

And because Jesus came, our earthly journey has a different flavor: our exile has turned into a pilgrimage. A pilgrim, as opposed to an exile, knows where to point her feet. She does not wander aimlessly and dejectedly but has a destination. She’s headed home, and so she is filled with hope. Many of us travel home for the holidays (or at least we did before the pandemic) or take refuge in our family and our home. In a similar way, every step in our Christian life leads toward a home that is the biggest refuge of all. When we get there, we’ll be welcomed with warmth and a meal and rest for our weary feet.

This isn’t some sappy sentiment meant to minimize our current distress. Goodness, our poor world seems to know nothing BUT distress these days. Our road can be bitter and our suffering great. Yet we now walk this road with hope because Jesus points the way home – and walks home with us.

This Advent and Christmas, we point our feet first to Bethlehem to welcome this child born to show us the way. And then we begin walking home. But not alone. Thanks be to God! This Christmas, Jesus has joined us on our long journey.

May God rejoice you on your pilgrimage this year.


Friends . . . if you’re interested in exploring the themes of exile and pilgrimage as they relate to our journey of faith, I hope you’ll check out my book that’s releasing on Feb. 2: 3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers. It’s all about the hope we have as spiritual pilgrims. You can head over to my website to see more info and to preorder. Thank you and blessings – Lisa

AN ADVENT PRAYER: HENRI NOUWEN

Yesterday marked the first day of the Advent season. We are now preparing our hearts for the coming of Jesus. We’ll begin the season with this prayer by theologian and priest Henri J. M. Nouwen.

***

Lord Jesus,
Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do and seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day,
We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus!’
Amen.

Source

WEEKLY PRAYER: ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI

This week’s prayer comes from St. Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226). Francis’s Feast Day was on October 4.

***

All Highest and Glorious God,
cast your light into the darkness of my heart.
Grant me right faith, firm hope, perfect charity,
profound humility,
with wisdom and perception, O Lord,
so that I may always and everywhere
seek to know and do what is truly your holy will,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Source

WEEKLY PRAYER: RICHARD ROLLE

Today’s prayer is by Richard Rolle (ca. 1300–1349), an English mystic and writer of spiritual treatises. Rolle, along with Margery Kempe and Walter Hilton, is remembered in the Episcopal Church (USA) today, September 28. The prayer below comes from his best-known treatise, The Fire of Love.

***

I ask you, Lord Jesus,
to develop in me, your lover,
an immeasurable urge towards you,
an affection that is unbounded,
a longing that is unrestrained,
a fervor that throws discretion to the winds!

The more worthwhile our love for you,
all the more pressing does it become.
Reason cannot hold it in check,
fear does not make it tremble
wise judgment does not temper it.

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