Plague & Prayer

— In the Midst of Pandemic Life, Religion is a Mixed Blessing


The coronavirus pandemic has now ravaged the globe for more than a year. It has brought with it myriad difficulties; despite the fact that many have been spared from the virus itself, no one has been immune to its economic and social consequences. This dimension of the pandemic’s impact has unmistakably revealed the disproportionate distribution of privilege and hardship in societies around the world, drawing much-needed attention to the ways in which COVID-19 has been experienced very differently by racialized and ethnic minorities, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, and women.

But despite the factual relevance of race, gender, and socioeconomic status, these not the only factors with the potential to complicate pandemic life for people. In the Western world, where religion no longer plays a central role in public life, not much attention is paid to the experience of religious communities. Yet, faith has proven to have a powerful role in shaping pandemic life for believers worldwide, and while it has been a comfort to many, it is arguably a mixed blessing.  

Risks and rewards 

Given the communal aspect of most faiths, many believers have found themselves facing a difficult choice between honouring their sense of religious duty and following public health guidelines to protect their health and safety. Obviously, the degree to which this has become a reality for religious believers varies based on different religious customs regarding congregation, but, having to choose between one’s faith and, potentially, one’s life is no easy decision.

In some cases, religious communities have found ways to adapt to restrictions by holding faith services online. Religious researchers have noted that roughly two-thirds of practicing Christians in the United States are attending virtual church services during the pandemic. However, they also recorded a decline in religious participation among the same group: approximately one in three practicing Christians have stopped attending church during COVID-19. Some of those who continue to worship practices struggle with the inadequacy of online services, but nonetheless express a drive to “keep going.”

However, practitioners of certain other faiths — particularly Islam and Judaism — have, in many cases, struggled with an incompatibility between their religious practices and social distancing requirements. Measures implemented in response to the coronavirus have deeply disrupted Muslim rituals surrounding death and burial rites. Likewise, social distancing regulations conflict with many practices central to (ultra-)Orthodox Jewish life. In Orthodox communities in New York and Israel, devout Jews have defied gathering restrictions in order to attend the enormous wedding and funeral ceremonies that represent a foundational part of their culture and heritage. Attendance at such gatherings is, for many, both “a religious and personal duty.” 

Orthodox Jewish communities have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, and many have struggled to reconcile the congregation-centred aspects of their faith and culture with public health guidelines. “Man walking beside red wall photo

A UK study showed that coronavirus death rates were highest among Muslims, followed by those who identified as Jewish, Hindu, or Sikh. Christians had a significantly lower risk, while non-religious individuals had the lowest death rate of all surveyed groups. The researchers noted that these risk disparities could be largely attributed to differences in geographical location, socioeconomic status, and demographic and ethnic factors already linked to higher risk of COVID-19 mortality, and that these considerations could not provide a complete explanatory picture. It seems possible that differences in faith practices could perhaps play at least a minor role. Religious communities whose traditions tend to require mass gatherings could conceivably be more vulnerable to contagion and death.

Furthermore, there’s yet another risk — that of prejudice and division. The perception among the rest of society that members of religious communities are selfishly endangering others by defying restrictions in order to perform rites and duties of faith can breed resentment and deepen social divides. In New York, the government’s handling of the pandemic has largely failed to show sensitivity to the particular needs of the insular Orthodox Jewish communities there, deepening their distrust in civic administration. Efforts by these groups to uphold religious obligations and community life in spite of the pandemic has led to clashes with local government and resentment from fellow citizens. Meanwhile, in India, an outbreak of the virus at an Islamic religious conference in 2020 was followed by an outbreak of Islamophobia. Muslims became the increasingly ostracized targets of fake news claiming they were actively attempting to spread COVID-19. 

Yet, although religion has demonstrated the potential to complicate the pandemic life of its adherents in these various ways, it also brings courage and comfort to many in facing the hardships that the coronavirus has brought. For example, many religious Buddhist communities in Southeast Asia are turning to rituals, magical rites, prayer, and talismans to protect themselves against the virus. Turning to faith-based methods in combination with public health guidelines has provided comfort and relief from anxiety in the midst of the pandemic: for millions, faith can assuage fear and inspire hope and courage. There is also increasing research that supports the idea that faith can have powerful, positive effects on health, especially mental health.

Furthermore, while some like Esau McCaulley lament the loss of community and the irreplaceable experience of in-person worship, others voice enthusiasm for virtual services. A Lutheran pastor replied to McCaulley in The New York Times by pointing out that online worship can indeed provide a sense of unity and community, with the power to alleviate the isolation and loneliness most of the world currently finds itself in. Another reader celebrated the increased attendance her synagogue experienced after switching to online services. For some, the effort to find their version of divinity even in the absence of a tangible community may strengthen and deepen their sense of devotion both to their faith and to their fellow believers.

The responsibility of faith leaders

Given the ways in which religion can have an enormous impact on pandemic life, it’s clear that faith leaders have a lot of power and responsibility in terms of the guidance they offer to their followers during this troubled time.

Where religious leaders misuse their power, society at large suffers as a result. For instance, some evangelical ministers in the United States have established a reputation for denying or downplaying crucial information about the virus, encouraging their followers to put their faith in God rather than in scientific and medical experts, and refusing to suspend in-person services while denigrating those who have done so in compliance with social distancing guidelines. In-person religious gatherings can turn into super-spreader events, infecting not just religious believers, but also other members of society they may come into contact with afterwards.

The Dalai Lama is among the religious leaders who have shared messages of hope, compassion, and unity during the pandemic. “The Dalai Lama speaks at the NIH

However, other faith leaders around the world– including the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis— have demonstrated an understanding of the responsibility that rests on their shoulders, and have shared uplifting messages of courage, hope, and compassion with their followers while also praising medical workers and encouraging their communities to be patient, heed guidelines, get vaccinated, and listen to science. An interfaith conference of religious leaders in Indonesia demonstrated a heartening logic of cooperation in the face of challenges and awareness of faith’s powerful impact on society’s experience of pandemic life. While almost everyone has recognized the vital role played by political, scientific, and medical authorities as the world struggles to tackle the virus, perhaps we should also acknowledge that similarly, religious authorities have a significant impact. The messages they send to their followers play a role in determining whether and how the faithful will adapt their worship to comply with public health guidelines. Thus, while faith has a hand in how believers suffer and overcome the hardships of navigating an isolated world, it also affects public health, as the choices religious congregations make have far-reaching effects beyond their own communities. In one way or another, faith has the potential to affect believers and non-believers alike at this fraught moment in human history.

Complete Article HERE!

3 biggest regrets people have at the end of life

Hospice chaplain shares common regrets she hears from people who have less than six months to live.

By A. Pawlowski

Sitting at the bedside of dying patients, Tenzin Kiyosaki sees every day how regrets can haunt people at the end of life.

The former Buddhist nun works as an interfaith hospice chaplain for Torrance Memorial Medical Center in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, tending to the spiritual and emotional needs of people who have less than six months to live, and listening to their concerns.

When her brother, “Rich Dad Poor Dad” author Robert Kiyosaki, asked her what the dying talk about, she mentioned some of the common concerns she heard over and over. Kiyosaki shares them in her new book, “The Three Regrets: Inspirational Stories and Practical Advice for Love and Forgiveness at Life’s End.”

It’s also a nudge for younger, healthier people to take action to resolve or prevent regrets now.

Kiyosaki wants people to remember that death doesn’t only come to the old.

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. — Steve Jobs

No one knows when their time is up, whether because of an accident or illness.

Life is impermanent not only for you, but your family, friends and loved ones. Kiyosaki’s own mother passed away suddenly at 49, leaving the family in shock.

“Understanding that death can come at any time can help you see how precious life is and how to really get on with our ambitions and our dreams, and to be kind to each other,” Kiyosaki, 72, told TODAY.

“We should clear the regrets now and go for our dreams rather than just hanging on to regrets that take up a lot of mental and emotional space.”

I did not live my life of dreams.

One patient always wanted to travel the world, but never did. “She felt like, ‘I never got out of here, I never got to do what I really wanted to do,’” Kiyosaki said.

For others, the “what if” regrets might center around never taking a chance on starting a business, applying for a dream job abroad or moving to a new city.

Kiyosaki urged people to examine whether they’re neglecting or putting off their dreams and if so, to turn it around and go for them now — it’s not too late. One terminally-ill woman she knew flew to Europe by herself despite all the obstacles in her way.

I did not share my love.

Many end-of-life patients are frustrated that they haven’t been able to share what’s really in their heart and say what they needed to say to their loved ones. For some, that might be “I love you.” For others, just being able to acknowledge, “I was absent, I was cruel, I was unavailable,” can transform a family and allow it to heal.

“I just feel like it’s important for people to see that they don’t have to live their whole life this way,” Kiyosaki said.

“Don’t fade away from life without saying what you need to say,” she writes in her book. “Find ways to say ‘I love you’ and express your love every day.”

I did not forgive.

This is perhaps the biggest regret many people have at the end. Old wounds and unfinished business rise to the surface, but holding on to past grievances hurts us, Kiyosaki writes, citing a quote from Buddha: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else — you are the one who gets burned.”

The power of forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself.

Kiyosaki recommends an exercise: Imagine you have one year left to live. Who would you call? What would you do and say to be at peace? Do it now.

“If you just clear the regrets, you have so much more open heart and receptivity to the world,” Kiyosaki said. “Let’s turn it around and enjoy our lives because they are impermanent — we’re all going to face end of life.”

Complete Article HERE!

‘I will hold their hands’

— Chaplains give terminal COVID patients a chance to say goodbye

By Will Peebles

Two days after a parade-less St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah last year, Mayor Van Johnson declared a local state of emergency because of COVID-19. The next day, March 20, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported the first two cases of COVID-19 in Chatham County. In the year since, Chatham County has lost more than 350 people to the virus. This article is one in a series that examines how individuals have dealt with a year-long crisis and have helped pull the community through the pandemic.

Rachel Greiner remembers when the reality of COVID-19 truly hit home for her.

In June, Greiner, the director of Memorial Health University Medical Center’s Pastoral Care team, found herself making arrangements for a mother and daughter, both sick in the hospital with COVID.

The daughter, the more serious case, was on the hospital’s COVID intensive care unitfloor.

She was dying.

Her mother was on the floor above her, reserved for patients sick enough to be in the hospital, but not yet sick enough to require ICU care.

Greiner and her staff of chaplains worked to get the mother into her daughter’s room. They were together until her final breath, a powerful, truly human moment — a final goodbye.

“And it was, of course, a sacred time, very beautiful that the hospital worked in order to get this woman down to be with her daughter,” Greiner said. “And while that was happening, my phone was ringing, and it must have rang six times.”

While Greiner was making sure a mother could be there with her dying daughter, her own children’s daycare was calling. She stepped out, in full personal protective equipment, to return the missed calls.

The daycare told her one of the teachers contracted COVID, and was calling to tell Greiner her children had been exposed.

“Now, that’s so commonplace I would roll my eyes if they called me and told me that today, but at that juncture, literally standing at the deathbed of someone with COVID-19, hearing that my children had been exposed to it — that was probably the moment that I was like okay, this is really real now,” Greiner said.

As a chaplain, Greiner deals with heart-wrenching situations on a daily basis. And for the last year, there has been no shortage of difficult work.

It’s a misunderstood profession, Greiner said. She and her team provide spiritual care to patients in the hospital, but it isn’t a single religion — in fact, it’s not inherently religious at all.

“We call it a ministry of presence. Sure, a lot of the things that we do are religious in nature. People want to pray. And they ask, and of course, we say yes,” Greiner said. “But we don’t come in the room demanding that you bow your heads and pray with us.”

If a person is in the ICU at Memorial Health, they’re going to see a chaplain at least once during their stay. But COVID, as it so often does, complicates things.

Early on in the pandemic, Memorial turned an entire medical ICU into an ICU specifically for COVID patients. Nurses were sending their children to live with grandparents to avoid possible spread.

Chaplains are in charge of facilitating patient visits. Sometimes those visits are virtual — they hold an iPad with family members on video chat. Not long ago, Greiner did a call with 48 people as they said goodbye to a family matriarch.

But it’s not the same.

“There’s no substituting what it would be for these patients to hold the hands of their spouses or their children. But in their stead, I will hold their hands and hold the iPad over them so that their loved ones can say goodbye,” Greiner said. “And my hope is that as they are transitioning from this place to the next, that that’s what they’re hearing: the love pouring out of their family’s voices coming through the iPad to them.”

For in-person visits in the COVID ICU, adults get one visitor. For kids, it’s two.

But when they’re moved to end-of-life care, that number is expanded to five.

That’s a tough restriction for some families. Only two people can go to be with their dying loved one for 30 minutes at a time.

“Let’s say it’s a spouse, they’ve been married 50 years, they have six kids. Well, they only have four more spots left, so they have to pick their four favorite children. And then of those four, only one of them can stay with dad while mom dies,” Greiner said. “I understand the reasoning behind it. But it is no less difficult to explain over and over again, and to empathize and say how sorry you are that you can’t get everybody in.”

It can be exhausting, but Greiner’s job doesn’t stop there. Her pastoral team members aren’t the only ones putting in emotional work day after day: the nurses, doctors and staff at Memorial are in the thick of the pandemic, as well.

Greiner said while her job is patient-oriented by nature, a lot of her work involves caring for her coworkers, as well. She coordinates with Memorial’s Nurse Manager Amber Schieber to host Muffins, Moments and More, a get-together at the hospital where the staff leans on each other for support, talking through situations that affected them, Schieber said.

In the breakroom is a prayer, written by Greiner, framed by Schieber.

“Rachel has really been a rock for us during this pandemic. She’s so wonderful. She’s been there for our patients and the families and the staff,” Schieber said. ”If COVID has taught us anything, it’s to really lean on your family and your support system. And Rachel has absolutely been that for us.”

“I tell everyone, it is so important to establish a counselor of some sort, especially when you work in health care,” Greiner said. “You can’t care for other people if you’re not caring for yourself.”

For Greiner, self-care is paramount. It can take the form of a monthly check-in with a therapist or a pep talk from her family. Sometimes, it’s as simple as getting out of the house to go to her happy place: the beach.

“I have a family that supports me, my husband knows if I say it’s time to go to the beach, then it’s time to go to the beach,” Greiner said.

The emotional toll of her job is enormous, and it has been especially so for the last year. But day-in and day-out, she facilitates these sacred end-of-life rituals — these final goodbyes — for those most touched by the tragedy of COVID.

“It is difficult, but it’s also very humbling. I think that the ground we stand on at that point is very sacred, and it’s an honor to stand on it with these people and to help bridge the gap from wherever their families are to that room where they can’t be,” Greiner said. “To hold their hands and stroke their faces and tell them it’s going to be okay as they leave, it is an honor.”

Complete Article HERE!

Growing My Faith in the Face of Death

I spent a lifetime counseling others before my diagnosis. Will I be able to take my own advice?

By Timothy Keller

I have spent a good part of my life talking with people about the role of faith in the face of imminent death. Since I became an ordained Presbyterian minister in 1975, I have sat at countless bedsides, and occasionally even watched someone take their final breath. I recently wrote a small book, On Death, relating a lot of what I say to people in such times. But when, a little more than a month after that book was published, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I was still caught unprepared.

On the way home from a conference of Asian Christians in Kuala Lumpur in February 2020, I developed an intestinal infection. A scan at the hospital showed what looked like enlarged lymph nodes in my abdomen: No cause for concern, but come back in three months just to check. My book was published. And then, while all of us in New York City were trying to protect ourselves from COVID-19, I learned that I already had an agent of death growing inside me.

I spent a few harrowing minutes looking online at the dire survival statistics for pancreatic cancer, and caught a glimpse of On Death on a table nearby. I didn’t dare open it to read what I’d written.

My wife, Kathy, and I spent much time in tears and disbelief. We were both turning 70, but felt strong, clear-minded, and capable of nearly all the things we have done for the past 50 years. “I thought we’d feel a lot older when we got to this age,” Kathy said. We had plenty of plans and lots of comforts, especially our children and grandchildren. We expected some illness to come and take us when we felt really old. But not now, not yet. This couldn’t be; what was God doing to us? The Bible, and especially the Psalms, gave voice to our feelings: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?” “Wake up, O Lord. Why are you sleeping?” “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”

A significant number of believers in God find their faith shaken or destroyed when they learn that they will die at a time and in a way that seems unfair to them. Before my diagnosis, I had seen this in people of many faiths. One woman with cancer told me years ago, “I’m not a believer anymore—that doesn’t work for me. I can’t believe in a personal God who would do something like this to me.” Cancer killed her God.

What would happen to me? I felt like a surgeon who was suddenly on the operating table. Would I be able to take my own advice?

One of the first things I learned was that religious faith does not automatically provide solace in times of crisis. A belief in God and an afterlife does not become spontaneously comforting and existentially strengthening. Despite my rational, conscious acknowledgment that I would die someday, the shattering reality of a fatal diagnosis provoked a remarkably strong psychological denial of mortality. Instead of acting on Dylan Thomas’s advice to “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” I found myself thinking, What? No! I can’t die. That happens to others, but not to me. When I said these outrageous words out loud, I realized that this delusion had been the actual operating principle of my heart.

The cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that the denial of death dominates our culture, but even if he was right that modern life has heightened this denial, it has always been with us. As the 16th-century Protestant theologian John Calvin wrote, “We undertake all things as if we were establishing immortality for ourselves on earth. If we see a dead body, we may philosophize briefly about the fleeting nature of life, but the moment we turn away from the sight the thought of our own perpetuity remains fixed in our minds.” Death is an abstraction to us, something technically true but unimaginable as a personal reality.

For the same reason, our beliefs about God and an afterlife, if we have them, are often abstractions as well. If we don’t accept the reality of death, we don’t need these beliefs to be anything other than mental assents. A feigned battle in a play or a movie requires only stage props. But as death, the last enemy, became real to my heart, I realized that my beliefs would have to become just as real to my heart, or I wouldn’t be able to get through the day. Theoretical ideas about God’s love and the future resurrection had to become life-gripping truths, or be discarded as useless.

I’ve watched many others partake of this denial of death and then struggle when their convictions evaporate, and not just among the religious. I spent time as a pastor with sick and dying people whose religious faith was nominal or nonexistent. Many had a set of beliefs about the universe, even if they went largely unacknowledged—that the material world came into being on its own and that there is no supernatural world we go to after death. Death, in this view, is simply nonexistence, and therefore, as the writer Julian Barnes has argued, nothing to be frightened of. These ideas are items of faith that can’t be proved, and people use them as Barnes does, to stave off fear of death. But I’ve found that nonreligious people who think such secular beliefs will be comforting often find that they crumple when confronted by the real thing.

So when the certainty of your mortality and death finally breaks through, is there a way to face it without debilitating fear? Is there a way to spend the time you have left growing into greater grace, love, and wisdom? I believe there is, but it requires both intellectual and emotional engagement: head work and heart work.

I use the terms head and heart to mean reasoning and feeling, adapting to the modern view that these two things are independent faculties. The Hebrew scriptures, however, see the heart as the seat of the mind, will, and emotions. Proverbs says, “As he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” In other words, rational conviction and experience might change my mind, but the shift would not be complete until it took root in my heart. And so I set out to reexamine my convictions and to strengthen my faith, so that it might prove more than a match for death.

Paul Brand, an orthopedic surgeon, spent the first part of his medical career in India and the last part of his career in the U.S. “In the United States … I encountered a society that seeks to avoid pain at all costs,” he wrote in his recent memoir. “Patients lived at a greater comfort level than any I had previously treated, but they seemed far less equipped to handle suffering and far more traumatized by it.”

Why is it that people in prosperous, modern societies seem to struggle so much with the existence of evil, suffering, and death? In his book A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor wrote that while humans have always struggled with the ways and justice of God, until quite recently no one had concluded that suffering made the existence of God implausible. For millennia, people held a strong belief in their own inadequacy or sinfulness, and did not hold the modern assumption that we all deserve a comfortable life. Moreover, Taylor has argued, we have become so confident in our powers of logic that if we cannot imagine any good reason that suffering exists, we assume there can’t be one.

But if there is a God great enough to merit your anger over the suffering you witness or endure, then there is a God great enough to have reasons for allowing it that you can’t detect. It is not logical to believe in an infinite God and still be convinced that you can tally the sums of good and evil as he does, or to grow angry that he doesn’t always see things your way. Taylor’s point is that people say their suffering makes faith in God impossible—but it is in fact their overconfidence in themselves and their abilities that sets them up for anger, fear, and confusion.

When I got my cancer diagnosis, I had to look not only at my professed beliefs, which align with historical Protestant orthodoxy, but also at my actual understanding of God. Had it been shaped by my culture? Had I been slipping unconsciously into the supposition that God lived for me rather than I for him, that life should go well for me, that I knew better than God does how things should go? The answer was yes—to some degree. I found that to embrace God’s greatness, to say “Thy will be done,” was painful at first and then, perhaps counterintuitively, profoundly liberating. To assume that God is as small and finite as we are may feel freeing—but it offers no remedy for anger.

Another area of head work for me had to do with Jesus’s resurrection. Ironically, I had already begun working on a book about Easter. Before cancer, the resurrection had been a mostly theoretical issue for me—but not now. I’m familiar with the common charge that any belief in an afterlife is mere wish fulfillment without grounding in fact—and that belief in Jesus is in the same category as faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But over the past 20 years, I’ve been drawn to the work of the British biblical scholar N. T. Wright, who mounts a historical case for Jesus’s bodily resurrection.

I returned to his material now, with greater skepticism than I had previously applied. I didn’t want to be taken in. But as I reread his arguments, they seemed even more formidable and fair to me than they had in the past. They gave me a place to get my footing. Still, I needed more than mental assent to believe in the resurrection.

The heart work came in as I struggled to bridge the gap between an abstract belief and one that touches the imagination. As the early American philosopher Jonathan Edwards argued, it is one thing to believe with certainty that honey is sweet, perhaps through the universal testimony of trusted people, but it is another to actually taste the sweetness of honey. The sense of the honey’s sweetness on the tongue brings a fuller knowledge of honey than any rational deduction. In the same way, it is one thing to believe in a God who has attributes such as love, power, and wisdom; it is another to sense the reality of that God in your heart. The Bible is filled with sensory language. We are not only to believe that God is good but also to “taste” his goodness, the psalmist tells us; not just to believe that God is glorious and powerful but also to “see” it with “the eyes of the heart,” it says in Ephesians.

On December 6, 1273, Thomas Aquinas stopped writing his monumental Summa Theologiae. When asked why by his friend Reginald, he replied that he had had a beatific experience of God that made all his theology “seem like straw” by comparison. That was no repudiation of his theology, but Thomas had seen the difference between the map of God and God himself, and a very great difference it was. While I cannot claim that any of my experiences of God in the past several months have been “beatific,” they have been deeper and sweeter than I have known before.

My path to this has involved three disciplines.

The first was to immerse myself in the Psalms to be sure that I wasn’t encountering a God I had made up myself. Any God I make up will be less troubling and offensive, to be sure, but then how can such a God contradict me when my heart says that there’s no hope, or that I’m worthless? The Psalms show me a God maddening in his complexity, but this difficult deity comes across as a real being, not one any human would have conjured. Through the Psalms, I grew in confidence that I was before “him with whom we have to do.”

The second discipline was something that earlier writers like Edwards called spiritual “soliloquy.” You see it in Psalms 42 and 103, where the psalmist says, “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” and “Bless the Lord, O my soul. And forget not all his benefits.” The authors are addressing neither God nor their readers but their own souls, their selves. They are not so much listening to their hearts as talking to them. They are interrogating them and reminding them about God. They are taking truths about God and pressing them down deep into their hearts until they catch fire there.

I had to look hard at my deepest trusts, my strongest loves and fears, and bring them into contact with God. Sometimes—not always, or even usually—this leads, as the poet George Herbert wrote, to “a kind of tune … softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, exalted manna … heaven in the ordinary.” But even though most days’ hour of Bible reading, meditation, soliloquy, and prayer doesn’t yield this kind of music, the reality of God and his promises grew on me. My imagination became more able to visualize the resurrection and rest my heart in it.

Most particularly for me as a Christian, Jesus’s costly love, death, and resurrection had become not just something I believed and filed away, but a hope that sustained me all day. I pray this prayer daily. Occasionally it electrifies, but ultimately it always calms:

And as I lay down in sleep and rose this morning only by your grace, keep me in the joyful, lively remembrance that whatever happens, I will someday know my final rising, because Jesus Christ lay down in death for me, and rose for my justification.

As this spiritual reality grows, what are the effects on how I live? One of the most difficult results to explain is what happened to my joys and fears. Since my diagnosis, Kathy and I have come to see that the more we tried to make a heaven out of this world—the more we grounded our comfort and security in it—the less we were able to enjoy it.

Kathy finds deep consolation and rest in the familiar, comforting places where we vacation. Some of them are shacks with bare light bulbs on wires, but they are her Sehnsucht locations—the spaces for which she longs. My pseudo-salvations are professional goals and accomplishments—another book, a new ministry project, another milestone at the church. For these reasons we found that when we got to the end of a vacation at the beach, our responses were both opposite and yet strangely the same.

Kathy would begin to mourn the need to depart almost as soon as she arrived, which made it impossible for her to fully enjoy herself. She would fantasize about handcuffing herself to the porch railing and refusing to budge. I, however, would always chafe and be eager to get back to work. I spent much of the time at the beach brainstorming and writing out plans. Neither of us learned to savor the moment, and so we never came home refreshed.  

A short, green Jedi Master’s words applied to me perfectly: “All his life has he looked away to the future, the horizon. Never his mind on where he was.” Kathy and I should have known better. We did know better. When we turn good things into ultimate things, when we make them our greatest consolations and loves, they will necessarily disappoint us bitterly. “Thou hast made us for thyself,” Augustine said in his most famous sentence, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” The 18th-century hymn writer John Newton depicted God as saying to the human soul, “These inward trials I employ from pride and self to set thee free, and break thy schemes of earthly joy that thou would find thine all in me.”

To our surprise and encouragement, Kathy and I have discovered that the less we attempt to make this world into a heaven, the more we are able to enjoy it.

No longer are we burdening it with demands impossible for it to fulfill. We have found that the simplest things—from sun on the water and flowers in the vase to our own embraces, sex, and conversation—bring more joy than ever. This has taken us by surprise.

This change was not an overnight revolution. As God’s reality dawns more on my heart, slowly and painfully and through many tears, the simplest pleasures of this world have become sources of daily happiness. It is only as I have become, for lack of a better term, more heavenly minded that I can see the material world for the astonishingly good divine gift that it is.

I can sincerely say, without any sentimentality or exaggeration, that I’ve never been happier in my life, that I’ve never had more days filled with comfort. But it is equally true that I’ve never had so many days of grief. One of our dearest friends lost her husband to cancer six years ago. Even now, she says, she might seem fine, and then out of nowhere some reminder or thought will sideswipe her and cripple her with sorrow.

Yes. But I have come to be grateful for those sideswipes, because they remind me to reorient myself to the convictions of my head and the processes of my heart. When I take time to remember how to deal with my fears and savor my joys, the consolations are stronger and sweeter than ever.

Complete Article HERE!

Covid Strikes Clergy as They Comfort Pandemic’s Sick and Dying

Pastor Marshall Mitchell of Salem Baptist Church in Abington, Pennsylvania, got his first dose of the covid vaccine in December. He believes it’s his spiritual duty to his congregation and community to take precautions to avoid covid-19.

By Bruce Alpert

The Rev. Jose Luis Garayoa survived typhoid fever, malaria, a kidnapping and the Ebola crisis as a missionary in Sierra Leone, only to die of covid-19 after tending to the people of his Texas church who were sick from the virus and the grieving family members of those who died.

Garayoa, 68, who served at El Paso’s Little Flower Catholic Church, was one of three priests living in the local home of the Roman Catholic Order of the Augustinian Recollects who contracted the disease. Garayoa died two days before Thanksgiving.

Garayoa was aware of the dangers of covid, but he could not refuse a congregant who sought comfort and prayers when that person or a loved one fought the disease, according to retired hairstylist Maria Luisa Placencia, one of the priest’s parishioners.

“He could not see someone suffering or worried about a child or a parent and not want to pray with them and show compassion,” Placencia said.

Garayoa’s death underscores the personal risks taken by spiritual leaders who comfort the sick and their families, give last rites or conduct funerals for people who have died of covid. Many also face challenges in leading congregations that are divided over the seriousness of the pandemic.

Ministering to the ill or dying is a major role of spiritual leaders in all religions. Susan Dunlap, a divinity professor at Duke University, said covid creates an even greater feeling of obligation for clergy, because many patients are isolated from family members, she said.

People near death often want to interact with God or make things right, Dunlap said, and a clergy member “can help facilitate that.”

Such spiritual work is key to the work of hospital chaplains, but it can expose them to virus being spread in the air or sometimes through touch. Jayne Barnes, a chaplain at the Billings Clinic in Montana, said she tries to avoid physical contact with covid patients, but it can be difficult to resist a brief touch, which is often the best way to convey compassion.

“It’s almost an awkward moment when you see a patient in distress, but you know you shouldn’t hold their hand or give them a hug,” Barnes said. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be there for them. These are people who cannot have visitors, and they have a lot they want to say. Sometimes they are angry with God, and they let me know about that. I’m there to listen.”

Still, there are times, Barnes said, that the despair is so profound she cannot help but “put on a glove and hold a patient’s hand.”

Barnes was diagnosed with covid near Thanksgiving. She has recovered and has a “better understanding” of what patients are enduring.

Dealing with so much suffering affects even the most hardened doctors and nurses, she said. Billings Clinic staffers were devastated when a beloved physician died of covid, and rallied behind a popular nurse who was seriously ill but recovered.

“We’re not only taking care of the patients; we are also there for the staff, and I think we have been an important asset,’’ she said of the hospital’s chaplains.

In Abington, Pennsylvania, Pastor Marshall Mitchell of Salem Baptist Church said he believes part of his spiritual duty is to persuade his congregation and the broader African American community to take precautions to avoid covid. That is why Mitchell allowed photographers to capture the moment in December when he received his first dose of a vaccine.

“As pastor of one of the largest churches in the Philadelphia region, it is incumbent on me to demonstrate the powers of both science and faith,” he said.

Mitchell said he might have credibility in convincing other African Americans, who have been disproportionately affected by covid, that a vaccine can save lives. Many are skeptical.

The politicization of covid precautions such as masks and social distancing has put many pastors in a difficult position.

Mitchell said he has no patience for people who refuse to wear masks.

“I keep them the hell away from me,” he said.

Jayne Barnes, a chaplain at the Billings Clinic in Montana, says it’s awkward not to touch or hug a covid patient in distress. But sometimes she cannot help but “put on a glove and hold a patient’s hand.”

Jeff Wheeler, lead pastor of Central Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said that his church encourages mask-wearing and that most congregants comply. However, the underlying tension is reflected in his message to members on the church’s website:

“As we move forward, we simply ask you to avoid shaming, judging or making critical comments to those wearing or not wearing masks,” it reads.

Sheikh Tarik Ata, who leads the Orange County Islamic Foundation in California, said that the Quran calls for Muslims to take actions to ensure their health and that congregants largely comply with covid guidelines

“So, our members don’t have a problem with mask mandates,” he said.

Covid has hit the Orange County Muslim population hard, Ata said. Religion has become an important source of comfort for members who have lost their jobs and struggled with illness or finding child care.

“Our faith says that no matter how difficult the situation, we always have access to God and the future will be better,” Ata said.

Adam Morris, the rabbi at Temple Micah in Denver, said he has turned to online video to meet with congregants sick with the coronavirus. When meeting with his congregation members in person, such as during graveside services, he worries that with his mask on people might miss seeing the concern and compassion he feels for their plight.

He conducts in-person graveside funerals for a small number of mourners but requires all participants to wear masks.

Observant Muslims and Jews believe it is important to bury the dead quickly after death, Morris said.

“Some traditions and rituals must go forward,” Morris said, “covid or not.”

Complete Article HERE!

Muslim Funeral Rites Explained


For many years, Muslim funeral rituals have attracted attention from Christian counterparts mainly because of their simplicity.

Yesterday, two high profile octogenarians, who played key roles in Kenyan politics and civil service, were laid to rest.

One, ex-minister Simeon Nyachae, a Christian of a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) faith and Senator Yusuf Haji of the Muslim faith. The two funeral services sparked debate on social media with a section of Christians seeking answers on Muslim funeral rites.

Nyachae, who died on February 1 at the Nairobi Hospital aged 88, was laid to rest two weeks later at his Nyosia village in Kisii County. His remains had been preserved at the Lee Funeral Home for 14 days before being flown to Kisii on Sunday.

On the other hand, the late Garissa Senator, who died on Monday morning, was interred at the Lang’ata Muslim Cemetry, in Nairobi, miles away from home, less than 24 hours after his death. He was 80 years old.

The cost of giving a loved one a decent send off took centre stage on the social media debate, with many Kenyans agreeing that Muslim burials cost way less.

Mohammed Hersi, a hotelier and vocal commentator on social media, took to his Facebook page to explain what happens when a Muslim dies.

In Muslim, Hersi said, the burial of a loved one should take place as quickly as possible after death and preferably within 24 hours.

Where the cause of death is uncertain this may and should be determined prior to burial.

The person who has died is washed as quickly as possible after death and wrapped in a simple white shroud For men, up to three pieces of cloth may be used for this purpose, for women, five.

In many countries, a coffin is not used, but in the UK, where this is often forbidden, a coffin is permitted.

Hersi revealed that the Muslim rarely transport a body.

“You get buried where you passed away…For us your burial is where death (maut) will find you, ” he wrote.

The Muslim burials timings are mainly dictated by prayers times.

The Muslim community prays five times a day: Fajr at 5am, Dhuhur at 1pm, Asr 4pm, Maghrib 6.30pm and Isha 8pm.

“Most of the burial prayers would coincide with the 1pm or 4pm prayers for various reasons ranging eg to allow immediate family like children to arrive etc, ” he said.

“We try and avoid evening or nighttime burial unless it is a case of an accident and departed ought to be laid to rest as quickly as possible.”

Preparation of the body 

The body is prepared either at home or even at some mosque.

Ghusl is the full-body ritual purification mandatory before the performance of ritual and janaza prayer.

The remains are wrapped in a simple plain cloth (the Kafan) which costs less than Sh500. After that, instead of a coffin, the deceased is transported to the mosque in a Janaza that is returned after use and reused by another family.

“Our mosque in South C does that very well and a few masjid in Mombasa, ” he added.

When a Muslim passes on in town, it becomes the responsibility of fellow muslims to give the departed brother or sister a decent burial.

The body is then carried away in a Janaza and is placed at the back of the mosque awaiting the normal prayers to happen.

Immediately after the normal prayers, an announcement is made informing worshippers of the presence of a body of a departed brother or sister and requested to join the family in burying their kin.

“It is considered a blessing to take part in such even if you were not known to the departed. We then bring the body to the front of the congregation, ” he added.

Before the body leaves for its final resting place, the family led by the eldest son and the Imam ask if there is anyone who owed the departed anything or if the departed owed anyone anything.

The son or immediately male family member are expected to take responsibility for the debt.

“We then all stand behind the Janaza and final prayers are led by the imam. Sometimes we have more than one body so they are all laid out in a line, ” he said.

The service takes less than 10 minutes and thereafter the body is picked by young men, who mostly are not even known to the deceased, and taken to the final resting place.

Once at the graveyard immediate family members preferably sons and brothers to the deceased will go inside the grave which is always ready.

The body is removed from the Janaza and placed inside a grave that has a mould of mud which acts as a pillow where the head of the deceased is placed. Additionally, the body faces the right side towards Mecca (the Muslim community faces Mecca when praying).

Wooden planks are used to enclose where the body is placed and if there is no wood, concrete slabs can be used.

Once done the family members step out, the grave is filled with soil.

Unlike in Christian funeral rituals, Muslims don’t observe protocols as everyone is considered equal regardless of their status.

“Once done a quick sermon is given hardly 5 to 10 minutes and we are done. We make no speeches and there are no protocols at the mosque or at the burial site based on your worldly position, ” he said.

“At the mosque and burial site we are all equal.”

In Muslim funeral rites, women are not allowed at the gravesite. If they attend, they can only watch from a distance.

Complete Article HERE!

What to Do With the Restless Dead?

Chickamauga National Military Park

by John Beckett

Here are the last questions from the most recent Conversations Under the Oaks. They’ve been edited for length and clarity, but I’ve done my best to preserve the thinking behind the questions.

What are your thoughts on the restless dead? We have a potter’s field here locally that I feel very drawn to. It was recently rediscovered and is the resting place of the homeless, the unidentified, the stillborn, etc. from around the 1900s to the early 1960s. I feel a deep connection to this place. Any thoughts?

There is a very old idea that people who die sudden and/or violent deaths, who die with unresolved issues, or who do not receive proper funeral rites do not move on to whatever comes next, but instead remain here as earthbound spirits. Alternatively, their souls – the essence of who they are – may move on, but the “energetic remains” of their trauma sticks around and occasionally the living bump into it.

I have some experience with this, but I’m far from an expert in it. If you have serious specific issues, I recommend you find someone who’s dealt with this a lot more than I have. But in general…

First, simply listen

What do you feel? What do you hear? One voice or many voices? Is there an attempt at communication, or is it just noise?

A few years ago I visited Chickamauga National Military Park, site of the second most deadly battle of the U.S. Civil War. I grew up 15 miles from Chickamauga and visited it occasionally – I always felt like the dead were near. But on this trip, I heard them screaming. Here’s what I had to say at the time:

By my belief system and the belief systems of most, those who died here went on to the afterlife, however you conceive of such a place. Those who believe in reincarnation would likely assume that many have been reborn, perhaps several times.

Perhaps there are a few souls trapped here 153 years later, but surely not many. Perhaps the physical remains (both human and man-made, like the cannons) facilitate a connection across the realms. I don’t know.

I just know I heard the dead screaming.

First, I would listen. I would make offerings to all those there, and if possible, to specific individuals. Keep in mind that most were Christians in life – be respectful of their beliefs and expectations, without disrespecting your own.

I would help keep the place clean, to the extent that such activities are permitted by the landowners. People get nervous when anyone takes an interest in a cemetery – they often jump to conclusions of malefic magic, even if they have no idea what that means.

I would not attempt to cleanse the place. I wouldn’t attempt to help any spirit “move on” unless I was sure I was dealing with one individual spirit and not either energetic remains or a conglomeration of spirits.

Mainly, listen.

Worship and Magic in Paganism and Christianity

Here’s a question on the different approaches to magic in Paganism and Christianity.

I’ve been thinking about the underlying structure of magic and religion. With Christianity, it seems like they combine devotionals to a deity with executing magic to invoke the deity’s power. With Paganism, it seems like there is more focus on magic as an individual practice.

A question like this requires the disclaimer that Christianity and Paganism are both broad and diverse traditions. Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and the United Church of Christ are all Christians, but they take very different approaches to it. Likewise, Gardnerian Wiccans, Celtic Reconstructionists, and kitchen witches are all generally (though not universally) considered Pagans, but they have very different beliefs and practices. So any attempts to compare “Christianity” and “Paganism” are necessarily broad, high-level, and will have many exceptions.

Further, much of what’s generally considered “folk magic” is done in the context of a Christian worldview, even though it’s unsanctioned. This question is concerned with official approaches, so that’s how my response is structured.

Let’s start with some definitions. Worship is declaring what is worthy. Magic is the art and science of creating change in conformance with will (that’s Crowley’s definition – I haven’t found a better one). Religion is the common beliefs and especially the common practices that bind a group of people together.

Magic: one form or many forms?

In orthodox Christianity, magic can only be done with the intercession of the Christian God. Therefore, it makes sense to incorporate pleas for such intercession with rites of worship.

In most forms of Paganism, magic is understood in a broader sense. My Threefold Theory of Magic says that while magic works by the intercession of Gods and spirits, it also works by our manipulation of unseen forces, and by psychological programming. So while we can incorporate magic into our worship (and I frequently do, especially in the big High Day celebrations), we have other options that Christians don’t.

Further, we have many different magical systems: energy work, herbal magic, stones and crystals, sigil magic, visualization, bardic magic, and others. These diverse systems lead to a diversity of practice.

All religions have something to say about magic, even if what they say is “magic doesn’t exist.” What they say about magic will determine how – or if – they work magic. Pagans see magic as much broader than Christians see it, so we have more approaches to working it.

Predictions for the next few years

The last question is a big one.

I’m interested in your thoughts on the next few years: predictions about Pagan culture and the Big Tent, but also how things are going to go with Nazi Pagans. And predictions for the spiritual side of things.

I occasionally mention the Big Tent of Paganism, but my enthusiasm for it has significantly waned over the past few years. My dream was that we would build robust individual traditions, and then work together on issues of common interest and to build pan-Pagan institutions. But it’s clear there is little interest in building those individual traditions, much less working together across traditions. The vast majority of Pagans simply want to do their own thing in their own way, and far too many live in mortal fear of someone “telling them what to do.”

I think we’re going to have to do a lot more work of creating traditions before people will start to congregate around them. And those traditions are going to have to be centered around things that people can do on their own, because that’s what they want.

I’m sad that the questioner mentioned Nazi Pagans. Or more exactly, I’m sad that they felt the need to mention them. Because they do. There are Nazis and White Supremacists in our wider society, so of course some of them are going to find their way to Paganism. I don’t think that’s going to change. We can and should attempt to isolate them and to deny their legitimacy to use Pagan concepts and imagery. But forget reclaiming the swastika – it’s lost for at least a hundred years, and maybe forever.

The currents of magic are getting stronger

On the spiritual side of things, I think the intersections of this world and the Otherworld are going to become stronger and more frequent. Expect more encounters with the Fair Folk. The currents of magic are going to continue to strengthen – that means if you can work magic, you can work more and better magic. What won’t change is that those who practice regularly will do more and better magic than those who don’t.

We are in the early years of Tower Time. It’s not going to be 2020 for the rest of our lives, but things in general are going to be challenging. But the chaos that is disrupting normalcy is also creating new opportunities: in business, in politics, in religion, in magic, and in virtually every area of life.

Those who pay attention and seize the opportunities will thrive. Those who cling to the past will not.

Complete Article HERE!