“Rejoice greatly, Oh Daughter Zion, Shout aloud, Oh Daughter Jerusalem Lo, your King comes to you, Triumphant and victorious is he Humble, riding on a donkey; On a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)
Things are not always as they seem.
Today, on ‘Palm Sunday’ we celebrate with the crowds who saw the joyful arrival of Jesus with their own eyes. We, ‘The Church’ easily–even unthinkingly–adopt the Church’s traditional language for this day: The “Triumphal Entry.”
Mark describes it as anything but. Riding into town on a donkey in a farcical re-enactment of Zephaniah’s prophecy, Jesus’ arrival in the Capital was viewed as defiant mockery by the crowd, as blasphemy by the Priesthood, and as rebellion by the Romans.
In the cultural, religious and political tinderbox of occupied Jerusalem this tawdry ‘Triumphal’ parade was viewed as the lit fuse of insurrection. Everyone agreed that It must be stopped. The ‘Triumphal Entry’ became a turning point, from prophet to prisoner, from messiah to martyr, from saviour to sacrifice.
Within a week: the cheering crowd became a jeering mob, the sage and venerable priests became murderous conspirators, and the Roman invaders became the heroes and defenders of civil society.
Within a week, the jeering mob demanded retribution, the conspiring clerics demanded expiation and the calloused oppressors required submission. A public example must be made.
Despised and rejected by all, Jesus was no longer seen as a Prophet, Priest, or Protector. He had become a Problem. Everyone’s Problem. Public execution became the preferred solution.
How does public opinion of ‘Religion’ impact my private faith? Do I change my chant when I change my crowd?
Faithful God, forgive my unfaithfulness. Some days, like Peter, I dare to walk on water. Some nights, like Peter, I deny, I run, I hide.
Today, I believe.
Help my unbelief so that I can stand in faith both in the Joy of the Triumphal Procession and beneath the Ruthless Glare of Public Opinion.
“The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech nor are there words; their voice is not heard, yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
But, who can detect their errors?
(Psalm 19: 1-4; 12, 14 NSRV)
Every crisis has its prophets.
Take Winston Churchill. At Britain’s most perilous moment, Churchill rallied the people of Britain by telling them that “this is their finest hour.”
Or, look at Stephen Hawking. In a culture saturated with consumerism but starving for spiritual meaning, Dr. Hawking prescribes wonder as the panacea for malaise.
“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet,” Hawking admonished. “Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”
Yet today’s crisis, ‘our’ Pandemic, needs its own prophet to lead us out of the purgatory of Covid isolation.
Neither politicians nor professors will do. We need a prophet who is indifferent–even unaware– of our need for real human connection.
We need someone so preposterous that they can bring perspective to people suffering under this Kafkaesque crisis where our closest relatives can murder us unwittingly with just the vapour of their breath.
So, here’s my plan: I would like to nominate Forrest Gump as a prophet for our Covidly times.
Sure, he’s a fictional character, but maybe that makes Forrest a fitting mascot for a cartoon epidemic that millions still don’t believe in.
Stigmatized by the insults of others, Forrest Gump painfully confesses to Jenny, “I’m not a smart man,” while ironically preaching wisdom through his words and faithfulness through his actions. Forrest Gump embraces the gospel of his Mama, who preached: “Stupid is as stupid does,” with its unspoken corollary that “Sense is as sensibility does. Well, I’m a disciple of Forrest’s Mama.
Forrest Gump fits the role perfectly, having been persecuted for unspoken sins and forgotten prejudices. Forrest was chased away by the unknown. He survived by just running. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
Let me explain.
In simpler times, a busy man could casually wonder aloud about the efficiency of a steep haircut, and admire the ‘Chic’ leadership image of “The Bald” without needing to commit to the fashion.
Similarly, Pre-Pandemic Man could complain about paying $30 for a lop-sided shearing that was really worth about ten bucks before Salon fee, taxes and tip. Pre-Pandemic Man would do this, because Pre-Pandemic man had evolved to believe that his own knowledge, skills and attitude were more valuable than the skills and services of others, and it was Pre-Pandemic Man’s democratic right to pay as little as possible for every good, service, or product offered by others.
If Pre-Pandemic Man was ever challenged in his thinking by Forrest the Pandemic Prophet, the self-righteous customer would harrumph and argue that a practical man could obviously do as good a job himself, if he only had a set of sharp clippers, a triple mirror, and a little free time.
Such a man might even wonder out loud about the frugal virtues of baldness that include an aura of self-confidence, loosely held authority, and savvy pragmatism.
As evidence, the glossy mags in the strip mall discount unisex hairstylist shop hint that baldness is timeless, and maybe even sexy for aspiring ‘Influencers’, like Patrick Stewart, Steve Jobs, or Stephen Covey.
“Grace under pressure” Hemingway once wrote about men like this. Of course, Hemingway, clad in his adventuresome Fisherman’s crew neck cable-knit wool sweater, was crowned with wavy locks of windswept grey hair, and a full beard. But still.
“Who can detect their errors?”
The psalmist wonders. I must admit that the Fog of Pandemic Lockdown can mess with common sense. Stupid is as stupid does, after all. For every Patrick Stewart and Captain Picard, there’s a Mike Myers and Dr. Evil. For every iconic Stephen Covey there’s a creepy Christopher Lloyd channeling Uncle Fester. Bald is tricky.
Who can detect their errors?
The slaughter was over in minutes. At first, it looked like I was winning. The side panels of the three-way mirror lied, suggesting that I had managed an even fade from the neckline to the crown, with a Tin-Tin like wisp of bangs on the front. So far, so good. I even recorded the debacle on my iPhone, so that Bald Steve Jobs would be proud of me.
The mirror’s centre panel told the whole story, though. The left fade was clearly more robust, with the clippers travelling a full three inches higher than on the right side.
The lopsided effect made it look like Tin-Tin had just lifted his head off of a sticky table after an all-night drinking bout with that black-bearded Pirate guy. It was a massacre. Gritting my teeth, I grabbed the clippers, flicked on the blades, and completed the grisly task.
I can’t detect my own errors. Pragmatism and pride, mixed in with a Pandemic dose of narcissism and the fog of Lockdown blinded me to the only sensible option I have left: age gracefully.
Glancing in the mirror, I had to admit that this wasn’t graceful. Surveying the damage. I mused that I only needed a red fez with a gold tassel and a tiny go-cart car from the local Shriner’s Club to complete the look.
Assessing the damage, I noted that my pride had taken a direct hit. I didn’t need a second opinion, but my partner was happy to share hers anyway.
You see, the Spirit has graced me with a life partner that can see Stupid heading our way in the misty distance, and usually, that Stupid is me.
Previously, this gentle saint has quietly reiterated that some heads are designed to look good without hair, and that mine isn’t one of them. So, in fairness, I had been warned.
After the debacle was fully exposed, the Love of My Life looked on the bright side, as she always does, and said, “Well, you can always put on your checkered pyjama pants and that old sweater. At least then you can go around town getting discounts”.
Now, that’s wisdom.
In the passage from today’s lectionary reading, the Psalmist gently points out that the heavens and the earth have already declared the glory of God, as revealed in both the physical universe and in the metaphysical wisdom of ten thousand years of human experience.
This historical wisdom of our species is recorded for us in our DNA, in ageless customs, in script, and in stone. Both the book of nature and the book of scripture embrace us with beauty, enfold us with love, and instruct us with compassion, generosity, and patience.
But even ancient wisdom is no match for a modern pandemic. After celebrating all of humanity’s received wisdom from the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, the Psalmist asks, “who can detect their errors?”
I understand this now, with all the certainty of a balding medieval monk. The Psalmist gets it, too. In a Pandemic, and even sometimes outside of it, people do stupid things. Like Forrest Gump says: “Stupid is as stupid does.”
Like Covid-19 itself, Pandemic Stupidity morphs and mutates into different strains. You can’t inoculate against all of them. You just have to isolate, and try to avoid doing stupid things, like cutting your own hair.
Despite our best efforts, there is always a threat that we can wander into a cloud of seasonal stupidity without our masks on. At other times, sometimes we just drop our guard and do stupid things. We’re human, after all.
We need help to avoid being stupid. Thankfully, the Psalmist offers us a way forward: prayer, and the Psalmist models the process for us. The writer admits their error, accepts responsibility, and in faith, seeks guidance to do better.
And we can–we can do better. The African-American writer Maya Angelou puts it this way:
” in crises, natural crises, human beings forget for a while their ignorances, their biases, their prejudices. For a while, neighbors help neighbors and strangers help strangers.” “Ask for what you want and be prepared to get it.” “Everyday I try to do better. See better. Say better….Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better”.
So, it’s that simple, really. Understand that these are abnormal times. Accept that life is different–more constrained, less enjoyable–under these circumstances. Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others. None of us, after all, have ever experienced this before, and we’re all learning as we go.
Accept also that most people, on most days, most of the time just want to treat people kindly and receive kindness in return.
Accept that most people are probably trying the best that they can just to get through the day without inadvertently doing dumb things.
And finally, try to recognize a stupid idea when it comes your way, and pass on it. If you’re not sure, share your brilliant plan with others you trust, then gauge their reaction, and stage your action plan based on their point of view.
Goodness, kindness, patience and gentleness might be in short supply, but we’ll never really run out. We just feel a little low sometimes.
Find your trusted Gumps, and conjure your inner Gump. Test all of your Covid-19 ‘aha’ moments against the standards of this panel of experts. If your great idea doesn’t pass the test, walk away. If you find you’re still drawn to a patently stupid idea, then “run, Forrest, run.”
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you my Lord, my rock, my redeemer.”
Reflect: What are some areas of my life and relationships that lead me into error? How can I detect my own errors? How can I get support?
Pray: “God of love, wisdom and mercy, please renew my spirit and my mind so that I can more perfectly see your wisdom and the movement of your spirit in my daily life. I pray that the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart can become increasingly more and more acceptable to you, my Lord, my rock, and my redeemer. Amen.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed, and Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” (Mark 1:35 – 37).
In our connected society, the growth of the internet has created entire industries that never existed until even five years ago.
One of my favourite new career choices is called being an “Influencer,” a career entirely based around a celebrity’s consumer preferences online.
As an “Influencer,” a young, attractive and popular celebrity comments on a product that they like, and their fans and followers go out and buy it.
Due to the exponential power of the internet, the company stands to profit from positive reviews posted by celebrities. They also stand to lose if they receive a negative review, so you can begin to see where the rewards are for the “Influencer” who persuades the multitude.
In this passage from Mark, the crowds have followed Simon Peter and his companions searching for spiritual healing.
Peter and the others, are hunting for Jesus, and Jesus has withdrawn to the wilderness in a prayerful quest for intimate prayer with the spirit of God.
Just like a modern day influencer, the crowd follows Simon Peter, who follows Jesus, who searches for unity with God in the wilderness, the private and intimate spaces in our lives.
How can you find that private wilderness moment in your day and commune with God in private? Commit to scheduling some alone time with God today, where you can reflect on God’s love for you and for the people you care about. You’ll be glad you did. Here’s a prayer that could open that conversation in the Wilderness of your own private thoughts:
A Wilderness Prayer:
God of the wilderness, I praise you for the wilderness places in my life. As I seek you in private, I know that I will experience the reassurance of your Holy Spirit in my prayerful time with you. God, help me to know you are with me in the wilderness places in my life and help me to feel your comfort, your presence, and your love. Thank you for your quiet and loving presence in my life. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.
Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany:
“My glance locked momentarily with the sky-blue eyes of a slender blonde. She held my gaze, smiled confidently, then disappeared into the crowd. No word was spoken.”
I needed information to complete the bank form. “What’s your favorite flower?” I texted. I re-read the words before I hit send. Without context, the words seemed innocent, almost tender though I hadn’t intended them that way. I just needed personal information to complete the online form. Nothing romantic about it.
After more than thirty years together, she suspected a motive. “Is this some kind of personality quiz?” she typed skeptically. And then, her tone softened: “My answer depends on the day…sometimes sunflowers, sometimes Gerber daisies.”
“Sunflowers!” I chastised myself. I should’ve known that by now. I realized that I didn’t even know what Gerber daisies looked like. Her response melted my heart, though. How had I let it all become so practical? When did the joy of learning new details about each other rely on something as practical as a bank form?
It wasn’t always that way. “Once Upon a Time,” I wanted to know everything. Like Groundhog Day, that goofy annual celebration in praise of warmer sunny days, and bright hopes for tomorrow. Ever since that first sunny and mild Groundhoggy day, we have shared all of our dreams together.
On a brilliant day in September, a dry lecture on dusty literature ended, and a somnolent crowd of a hundred students lolled towards the exits. As I awaited my turn to plod up the aisle, I stared carelessly around the packed hall. Briefly, I locked eyes with the sky-blue gaze of a slender blonde. She returned my glance with confidence, and smiled disarmingly. The throng lurched, and the girl disappeared. No words were spoken.
That February, Groundhog Day was unseasonably warm. Though it startled the chubby rodent with his own shadow that day, the bright sunshine lured me out to the front porch of my student rental to lace up my red converse sneakers before heading off to my turgid class on Romantic Poetry.
As I squatted awkwardly to tie my shoes, a slender blonde walked by, turned, looked directly at me, and smiled gently. “How did your pictures turn out?” I stared blankly and uncomprehendingly in response. I had no idea what she meant. ‘Think of something cool to say‘ I thought.
But her self-confidence both unnerved and attracted me. Kerchiefed in a Joplinesque red bandana, her figure draped by a masculine second-hand rummage sale overcoat, she struck me as the essence of edgy counter-culture cool, and suddenly the only thing that mattered was making a good first impression. She waited for me to stand, and I looked away as I tried to think of a clever reply.
“What pictures?” I asked. ‘Not cool. Not cool at all,’ I winced.
“I saw you shooting photos for the school paper at the concert last weekend,” she replied. I summoned the courage to ask her name, she smiled disarmingly, and replied: “EvelynSchomethingerotherski.” I pretended I heard. Then I pretended I knew what I was doing. I was fully and completely smitten. Like the little groundhog on a sunny day in February, I just wanted to dart back onto my burrow, and figure things out.
So it began. We roamed campus together, chatting, and parted hours later when there were no more good excuses to delay.
At home, I realized I didn’t have her phone number, address, or last name, so I sat up that night reading every listing in the student directory that listed first names only, sometimes accompanied by a last initial. Finally, I found “Evelyn S.” Out of eleven thousand students, there was only one.
While the rest of the world anticipates the romance of St. Valentine’s Day, Evelyn S. and I celebrate the enduring romance of Groundhog Day, just as we have for over three decades. It’s silly and frivolous and fun, like being in love.
In a way, the insecure groundhog–shy, bashful, and scared of his own shadow–symbolizes our vulnerability and expresses the courage we need to leave the safety of our burrows and accept the lifelong risk of loving others. But it’s worth it. Every minute. And, as the sunflowers show, we are still learning to love each other with each passing year.
Move over St. Valentine, the lowly Groundhog is the new Mascot of Love. Forget the roses. From now on, I’m sending sunflowers.
2021 is here, and it’s already a winner, because it’s not 2020, right?
So this weekend, before the new year really gets underway, we pause to remember, to prepare, and to refresh our spirits in this space between yesterday and tomorrow.
The ancient Romans, who had a god for everything, had a god for this in-between time, this ‘doorway’ between the past and the future. Janus, that two-faced god of endings and beginnings, Janus, that liminal god of the darkened corridors between ‘then’ and ‘now’ is still with us.
We find evidence of the god’s presence right in our word ‘January,’ a month that begins by looking backwards at what ‘was’, then peering forward at what ‘will be’, without ever really wondering what is.
As we pause in the doorway of Janus’ waiting room between December and February, we might uncertainly wonder: “After last year, am I ready for what comes next?” For people of faith, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”
We do not have to wait in the shadows with two-faced Janus, nor stumble blindly between the darkened doorways of our lives, because the good news of the gospel has already proclaimed that a new light has dawned: ‘the Kingdom of God has come near.’ This is the light of our faith.
In the light of faith:
we leave the darkened past for a brighter vision of a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Kingdom of light.
In the light of faith:
we reach forward to grasp what is ahead, pressing on towards the Kingdom of God that glows brighter and grows warmer before us.
In the light of faith:
we proclaim, along with the apostle Paul, that:
I give no thought to what lies behind, but I push on to what is ahead. My entire attention is on the finish line as I run towards the prize—the high calling of God in Christ Jesus
So, welcome, friends, to 2021, the year of God’s blessing. This year,
May God bless you and keep you
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you
May God look kindly upon you, and give you peace
Both today, and throughout the growing light of the coming year.
*Unless otherwise noted, all biblical citations are from:
The Inclusive Bible. Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2009.
Unless otherwise attributed and where noted (NRSV), all scriptural quotations and references on dougferris.ca are courtesy of The New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV) copyright 1989 by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission, all rights reserved worldwide.
Unless otherwise attributed and where noted (TIB), scripture references are courtesy of The Inclusive Bible. Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2009. ISBN: 1-58051-213-8.
Unless otherwise attributed, all written material, visual images, photographs, and videos appearing on http://www.dougferris.ca or http://www.ferrport.com are original works by Doug Ferris, subject to copyright licensing under Creative Commons agreements and under the copyright permissions of the Government of Canada.