When I was on vacation this summer, I went biking on the Hiawatha bike trail near the MT-ID border (I-90 Exit 5). The trail is an old railroad bed converted for biking and it hosts several long, dark, dank tunnels, the longest being over one mile.
Deep inside these tunnels there is no light at all, unless you bring a lamp which is required. Just to see how dark darkness can be, I stopped in the middle of one of those tunnels and turned off my lamps. And it was dark. Really dark. (The pic is real. That’s how dark it was!)
I couldn’t see my own hand much less the trail ahead. I could have easily gotten turned around in there, lost until I finally crashed into a wall…which wasn’t on my agenda so I didn’t move an inch. In that darkness, my anxiety level shot up as I tried to get my sense of bearing. I became confused and my life became unpredictable and scary. Stuck in the tunnel without light, I could have easily turned to despair. Quickly I turned on my headlamp and bike lamp so that I could see, even if only a few feet around me.
In many ways, going through the past six months has felt like a journey through that dark tunnel, often without the headlamps turned on. Life has become unpredictable, uncontrollable and frightening because we simply don’t know what is ahead of us in the darkness of the future. And even though we think we know what’s beside and behind us, even that is hard to see and wonder about because it’s changing so fast. The tunnel seems almost never-ending and that light at the end looks to be nowhere in sight.
This darkness on the journey through our pandemic tunnel actually has a named phase, at least according to experts who study disasters and their aftermath. (https://religionnews.com/2020/09/14/the-pandemic-at-six-months-welcome-to-the-disillusionment-phase/) This phase of feeling lost in the dark is called the disillusionment phase which follows the impact, the honeymoon, and the heroic phases of a disaster and precedes the reconstruction phase. (Yes, there is a hope-filled reconstruction phase to come, though you, me and many others may not be feeling it yet.)
The disillusionment phase is marked by a continuing anxiety that becomes less and less hopeful of an end to the struggle. People feel stuck in their suffering, and cynicism, anger, and despair become the more usual way of being. There is an increased turning to panaceas like drugs, gambling, alcohol and other things that lead to more addiction. It truly is a time of disillusionment.
In reality, the depression that people may be feeling right now is very real...and in fact is quite normal during the recovery of such disasters. Though it doesn’t help that the disasters and suffering just seem to keep piling on – fires, floods, hurricanes, civil unrest, political wrangling, division and the increasing turn to violence to solve our problems.
So what do we who are people of faith in Christ, the light of the world, do? Do we remain stuck in our suffering, wallowing in the seeming hopelessness of it all? Do we stop thinking about and praying for God’s future for us, even if we don’t know what it is?
No, that is not the Christian answer, for followers of Christ are people of hope and faith and love. We don’t give in to despair. Instead, we need to turn on God’s headlamp so that we can see the power of God’s Spirit working in the world more clearly and live in Christ’s light. “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and light onto my path.” (Ps 119:105)
You see, the problem is not the darkness itself. Darkness in itself is neither good nor bad; it just is. Without it we wouldn’t be able to see the stars or enjoy a controlled camp-fire or walk in the moonlight. Also, many of God’s creatures only thrive in the darkness. And it’s often only in darkness that we can know how dependent we are on God.
No, the problem is not the darkness. The problem is our own inability to see in the darkness. When we can’t see what’s around us, we become afraid. And when we are afraid, we try to put ourselves in control. And when we do that, life easily goes wrong.
What we need is a boatload of faith, a truckload of hope, and carload of love (all three gifts of the Spirit) so that we can let go of needing to be God and trust in the lamp of Christ that illuminates our path ahead! Walking in the beam of Christ’s light is the follower of Christ’s path for it is there that we can welcome the Spirit into our hearts, minds and souls.
How? Well, why not start by reading scripture again and letting that Word wash over you. Psalm 62:5-9 and Matthew 6:25-7:5 are good places to begin. Listen to uplifting music and connect with friends and family who will raise your spirits, not drag you down. Turn off the news, social media, internet commentary and the 24/7 talking heads who assuage their greed by making us anxious and afraid.
And pray…a lot. Look for the many ways God of love and hope is working in the world around you and name them out loud or in a journal. Spend time exploring what new adventures God is calling you and your congregation to go on now (and no, it’s not backwards). And find ways to care for others. Getting out of our own heads and focusing on the various ways we can serve and already are serving others, is a great way to experience God’s light in our lives.
“It is you who light my lamp; the Lord, my God, lights up my darkness.” (Psalm 18:28) Even though we may be feeling trapped in the dark without light, God’s light of Christ is here, guiding us when we step into the light. And in that light we can start moving toward the reconstruction phase as God’s true light at the end of the tunnel appears in the distance.
“What does God’s call to love our neighbor as ourselves mean for us today?”
How would you respond to this question? How would your congregation?
Given what we’re seeing in the behavior of some folks across our country right now, including Christians, this question does seem a good one for we who name ourselves as followers of Christ to ask. After all, this is God’s second greatest commandment to us: love your neighbor as yourself. And we as Christians are called to live this command to the best of our ability through the power of God’s forgiving grace.
I wonder what would happen if we dedicated a year to studying, exploring and practicing God’s call and command to love one another? I wonder what might that look like in our congregations, our synod, our personal lives, our wider ELCA? Stop and imagine for a moment spending a whole year talking about, praying about, listening for, and discerning new and continuing ways to live Jesus Way of Love in this world today.
I wonder how many of us might dismiss this idea as too boring, too “been there, done that,” too “well, duh.” I also wonder how many of us would think that it was a great idea…for those people over there. “I don’t need to learn anything more about Christian love,” I may find myself thinking, “but ‘they’ do!”
In this world of polarization, judging and blaming as well as the ongoing need for excitement-seeking stimulation, focusing on exploring and living God’s call to love our neighbors in more and healthier ways may not be something we want to do.
…And yet love is the center of Jesus’ way of life. Jesus doesn’t shut up about love. In fact, Jesus talks about love all the time. Loving God and loving our neighbors (all of them) permeates Jesus’ call, his teachings, his actions.
And Paul talks about God’s love and neighbor-love all the time too, teaching us again and again how God’s love for us in Christ calls and commands us to live our lives driven by love for all of God’s people and creation.
And the prophets love talking about God’s steadfast love and mercy while calling us to live out that love, justice and mercy into the world.
Even the Torah – the law found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures -- is centered on God’s command and call to love God and neighbor.
What are the Bible texts that pop into your mind when you think of loving your neighbor as yourself?
For many it may be Paul’s famous love sermon from 1 Cor 13 that is often read at weddings but is actually meant to teach a conflicted community what it means to love one another. “Love is patient and kind, not boastful, arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it’s not irritable or resentful. Love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things.”
Or what about Paul’s exploration of love as the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5? “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith-fullness, gentleness, self-control.” Or his description of love in Romans 12, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection…”
Jesus too teaches us love, both God’s love for us and how we ought to share that love with others. Often he does so through parables like the story of the Prodigal Sons or the Good Samaritan. Then there is the parable of Kingdom sorting in Matthew 25 in which Jesus declares bluntly what it looks like for the nations to love of both Christ and neighbor: “Come you (plural) that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you all gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
What are your “love” texts from the Bible, the passages that inspire you to love?
Love is the core, the focus and the engine behind everything Christians, including Lutherans, are and do and seek in the world. Love is everything, for God is love.
As I consider the Christian Church today, even us ELCA Lutherans, I wonder if we’ve lost the love. Have we ignored God’s deep, abundant, abiding love for us in Jesus as a cheap gift to shove into the back of our closet so we can keep living as we always have? Have we forgotten what it really means to love our neighbors as ourselves (if our sinful selves ever knew)? I don’t know…I merely wonder.
Maybe if we dedicate a whole year across the Montana Synod to studying, exploring, and living out God’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves, we will discover what Jesus-love really means for us today. I wonder what the Holy Spirit would do with that!
 Birch, Lapsley, Moe-Lobeda, Rassumssen, Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life (2018).
He preached the gospel to me without even knowing it. I was over half-way up the trail to Firebrand Pass in Glacier Park and it had been a long slog. The trail had been steep with more “up” to come. It was covered with overgrown foliage making it hard to see the roots and stones I kept tripping over. The higher I climbed, the harder it was to breath. I was losing my will to keep going even though I knew I was just getting to best part – the view!
I had stopped to sit on a stump to rest and eat a snack when he came down the trail toward me. “How’s it going?” he asked. “Oh, good,” I lied. “Slow but sure.” He didn’t hear the lie. Or maybe he did. For the next thing he said was just what I needed to hear. “Yeah, that’s the way. I try to enjoy every step.” And then he hiked on.
Enjoy every step?! That was not something I was doing. I was suffering each step. Groaning some steps; losing hope on other steps. And stopping every 10 steps to rest. I was tired, frustrated and in pain. I was not enjoying anything.
But not being one to give up, I decided to give it a try and practice enjoying every step. So I started up again, this time slowing down. I focused on the trail and the flowers and the new view each step brought to my eyes. I breathed evenly and with intention instead of gasping and groaning. I stopped worrying about getting to my destination and just tried to enjoy each step.
And it worked – mostly. I started to enjoy every step and the whole hike more fully. And in that way, I reached the top and the sheer awesome beauty of the pass. All because the mountain preacher reminded me about joy.
Joy, at least from a Christian perspective, is not warm, fuzzy, cuddly happiness. Instead, joy is about recognizing Gods blessings and gifts in and around us no matter the circumstances, good or difficult, and being enlivened by their presence – God’s presence – on our journey. Joy is about finding hope, faith and love in and through Christ in the moment, every moment, rather than suffering on a difficult past path or worrying about what future steps may bring. Joy is living and moving through life in God’s beauty and the Spirit’s strength rather than getting stuck in my own stuff.
Not every step I took after my encounter that day was a happy one. In fact, a lot of them were not very happy. They were slow, brutal, hard steps that my own will did not want to take. But even so, I found joy in many of those steps (not all; there were still some grumbles and groans). And finally I was rewarded by the exhilaration of reaching the top of the pass where the view was spectacular and the wind (Spirit?) nearly blew me off my feet.
I learned some things from that hike about the journey we are on now through pandemic, political and social strife, economic difficulties and the suffering of so many people who have been wounded for too long.
First, I learned that this journey is a lot longer than my hike and won’t be completed in a day, week, month or maybe even a year. Life is a journey and not every step is a happy one, or even a joyful one. Yet we must keep plodding forward and yes, even upward. We cannot give up.
Second, we aren’t on the journey alone. My hike had that preacher (and other hikers) who encouraged me along, whether they knew it or not. And as I practiced enjoying every step, I experienced God in each step as well. God steps, walks, struggles, groans and cries with us as we walk our journey in these days. When we step in love with each other, instead of getting in each other’s way, we can find joy in the journey together.
Third, we can choose how we will step on the journey. We can fight or resist every hard step like I was doing before I met my preacher. We can choose to be apathetic or frightened or anxious and just stay home.
We can even try to go backwards, although on life’s journey that just doesn’t work. We can’t go back again except in our minds. Or we can choose to listen to the preacher and hear God’s call to come, to follow, to grow and to love, letting God lead the way. We have the choice to participate in God’s joy, the joy God wants for us, simply by following Christ.
Finally, I remember something I read once from an unknown source: “In this life, we are all walking up the mountain. We can sing as we climb or we can complain about our sore feet. Whichever we choose, we still gotta do the hike. I decided that singing makes a lot more sense.”
Often on life’s journey we get caught up in complaining every step of the way because it’s not going as we want it to or think it should. But singing evokes so much more joy than complaining. So on my hike I started to sing. What did I sing, you may ask? Well, for some reason I chose, “I’m not throwing away my shot!” from the musical Hamilton…over and over and over again. It got old eventually but it did get me up that mountain.
I’m pretty sure the Spirit spoke to me that day through that mountain preacher: “Enjoy every step. For I am with you always, to the end of the age. And in my presence there is joy.” (Matt 28:20; Ps 16:11)
So let’s choose to sing! Yes, quietly, under our breath, behind masks in worship for now. But go ahead and belt something out in your bedroom at home or even on the trail. Because singing just makes more sense!
Blessed and safe Labor Day weekend to you all!
Bishop Laurie Jungling
Elected June 1, 2019, Laurie is the 5th Bishop of the Montana Synod