Four Spiritual Practices for a Global Pandemic

Four Spiritual Practices for a Global Pandemic

I got me the pandemic quarantine blues
I’m so bored in my bedroom
I just don’t know what to do
I think I’d better get right with my Lord
Real, real fast
Lest this quarantine lead me to my final repast
I don’t wanna go there, but I don’t wanna be here, what can I do–
To break these pandemic quarantine blues.
I can’t touch my dog, I can’t touch my wife
I can’t even touch the coffee pot without causing strife
I want some human company, I’m trying to learn Zoom
So I can see my friends’ faces
And talk to them too.
But my internet is slow, I forgot my wifi password, I’d better find it fast
All my friends will be online, they’ll be doing fine, and I’ll be a thing of the past!
Well I see my dusty Bible sitting up there on top of my shelf.
I’ve heard my preacher read it many a time
But I never read it myself.
Help me Mr. Jesus, don’t you know I’m going out of my head
The kind of stress I’m feeling just won’t go away with any kind of med.
They say you know my dark side because you’ve experienced it too
Save me Mr. Jesus, from these pandemic quarantine blues.
Help me Jesus.

I’ll keep my day job… with apologies to all musicians everywhere, this is Eric Elnes and this is the Converging Paths Podcast. Converging Paths is brought to you by Darkwood Brew, where they are opening up their entire 20-series library studying Progressive Christianity, from all kinds of angles, with about 120 different leaders from all the world. They’re opening up that entire library for streaming free right now because of the pandemic, hoping that we can all make it through safely and soulfully. Go to and get your free 60 day subscription now.

So today we’re looking at four spiritual practices that help us in this time of pandemic, or any time of great stress, really. Maybe you picked up on the first hint of one already, that’s humor. That there is something about the darkness, dealing with serious, serious subjects, that actually demands humor. In fact, I don’t really trust any spiritual leader or really anybody who doesn’t at least have a bit of a sense of humor, can laugh at themselves and laugh at the world. There has to be an abundance of spirit inside a person if they can laugh. You know, I don’t mean those people who would tear down people and are snarky and all that, I mean just good solid humor that doesn’t hurt people, that is just about the joy of life, the irony and absurdity of life. That is a very important spiritual practice. And if you’re not laughing much these days, that’s a good sign to take a step back and, well, maybe engage in the three other practices we’re going to deal with today.

On ahead, we have – we’re going to start with a reflection that I made in my Sunday morning sermon online at Countryside Church, a reflection on the most unfortunately translated passage of the entire Bible, a quote from Jesus, which is fundamentally misunderstood. And if you get it right, it will totally revolutionize your life. So we’re going to start with that, some reading from Matthew and a brief reflection on that, and then I’m going to – maybe you remember I promised Imam Jamal in episode 25 that I was going to try washing my hands, doing a ritual hand-washing every time the Muslim call to prayer sounds out five times a day. And I got an app that – I had one the other day that I was using, and that wasn’t that good. So I found another one that’s called Muslim Assistant, you can get it for free on the App Store, and that will tell you the times of the prayers happening. But when they’re praying, I wash my hands ritually. So we’re going to have a little reflection on that, and I encourage you to get the app or find other ways to link up with your fellow Muslim sisters and brothers.

And finally, we’re going to look at the spirituality of eating, making sure that every meal is not just shoving food down your face, but really an opportunity to deeply engage with the sacred. Hope you enjoy and stay safe.

It’s kind of remarkable how you can hear the same old passages from Scripture, but in completely new ways. And there is no better example that I can think of at the moment than hearing the same old scriptures in the middle of a pandemic. I’m going to read a couple scriptures, the first from Matthew 4, verses 12 through 17, and then Matthew 5, verses 1 through – we’ll go to 12. And these are very severe familiar scriptures to you, you’ve heard me speak, especially about the first one, many times. But perhaps you’ll hear it in a new way for Matthew 4.

Now, when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee, and leaving Nazareth, he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulon And Naftali, that what was spoken by the Prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled. The land of Zebulon and the land of Naftali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. And for those who sat in the region of the shadow of death, light has dawned. From that time, Jesus began to preach, saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Those were the very first words out of Jesus’s mouth, and of teaching in the gospel Matthew. The second words of teaching are these, from the Mount of Beatitudes: “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and he said, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him, and he opened his mouth and taught them, saying ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for, theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed that are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed that are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed that are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so man persecuted the prophets who were before you.

So of course, you’ve heard those words of Jesus many a time. And especially at Countryside Church, I’m fond of quoting those first words out of Jesus’s mouth, which are also the very first words out of his mouth in the Gospel of Mark as well, where Mark adds “believe the good news.” As I’ve noted before, those are probably the most unfortunately translated words in the whole of scripture. We think about the Kingdom of Heaven drawing near and repenting and like, “oh my gosh gods, come and look busy, beat yourself up, tell God how terrible you are, and before God comes. Otherwise, there will literally be hell to pay.”

But the Greek underneath the English there suggests a far different translation that’s actually far more accurate than what you normally find in your English Bible. The clearest and most accurate way to translate that line, if you combine that believe the good news with from Mark as well is kingdom of heaven is already here is already here. Change your whole way of thinking, that’s metanoia or repent, is actually a complete change of thought, not beating yourself up. To change your whole way of thinking, that Mark adds, believe the good news. So the kingdom of heaven is already here. Change your whole way of thinking and believe the good news.

And you can imagine Jesus’s present day audience would be a lot like his first-century audience. “What do you mean the kingdom of heaven is at hand? We’ve got a global pandemic going, we’ve got the world teetering on the edge of at least a very deep recession, if not a global depression. The hospitals are about to be overwhelmed, and they are already overwhelmed all over the world. We’ve got the same old usual warfare and political garbage. What do you mean heaven is already here? I’m in quarantine. Come on.”

But it’s significant that the very next words out of his mouth of teaching in Matthew are those Beatitudes, those “blessed be” statements. It’s as if Jesus is is ticking off every reason, every objection that his first-century audience has weighed against the understanding that heaven could already be here. Maybe not in its fullness, but very much present enough for Jesus to make a note of it and to emphasize that at the very start of his ministry.

“Blessed you who are poor in spirit.” Are you poor in spirit? Jesus says you’re blessed.

“Blessed are those who mourn.” Do you have anyone or anything to mourn? Jesus says you’re blessed.

“Blessed are the meek,” which is another way of saying “humbled” or even “humiliated.” Are you humbled in any way through this crisis? Jesus says you’re blessed.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” If you’re full of that, it’s when it’s lacking, when you find it lacking in the world. Do you find it lacking in the world? Jesus says you’re blessed.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, that is those who try to wage peace in the middle of tumult and conflict.” Are you in the midst of tumult and conflict trying to find peace? Jesus says you’re blessed.

On down the line he goes, until finally, if you’re going to take Jesus seriously and acknowledge that heaven is truly in the now, it’s already here, then we have to change our definition of what heaven even is. We can’t define heaven or experience of Heaven on Earth as being merely the absence of conflict, or the presence of joy and wonder and peace, right. No, this world is about struggle, if it’s about anything else. And so what Jesus is really getting at, if you’re going to take him seriously, is you’ve got to learn to find heaven in the heart of your struggles, not merely in their absence.

Finding heaven in the heart of our struggles. Well, we certainly have some big struggles we’re going through now, don’t we. If Jesus is correct – not just Eric Elnes is correct, but Jesus – there’s a whole lot of heaven present here right now. And no less so than before these tumultuous times came upon us. Maybe even more so, in certain ways.

I don’t say this lightly. I know many are struggling, they’ve lost work, they’re in quarantine, they don’t know where the future paycheck is going, their health –  we have members in the hospital that is already struggling from crowdedness, and they’re in there for other reasons. And it’s really problematic for so many of us. For me myself, of course, you know that I contracted the COVID-19 virus, and while I had very little symptoms from it, I did have to contemplate – at the very beginning I didn’t know where this would take me, possibly even to death, the average lifespan being 17 days between the onset of symptoms and death for those who died. And there was a time where I really had to contemplate, “Do I literally have 17 days left on this earth?”

Our daughter Arianna, also at the end of December, the one with the cancerous brain tumor that was operated on a number of years ago, we’ve discovered that it’s growing again, and she was supposed to have brain surgery here on April 3rd, and that now is off the table because we just can’t put her into a coronavirus situation anywhere [to] have surgery right now. And so that’s been postponed indefinitely. So our family has definitely been facing struggles along with everybody else, serious struggles that are cause for great concern and alarm. Incidentally, Ariana’s feeling well, she feels as well as ever, she’s never had any – again, like her father doesn’t have symptoms of something serious here.

But in any case, what that effect has had on us is to, when you’re facing a virus, you’re facing a global depression, and you’re facing your own daughter’s brain surgery, which has been postponed, there’s so many things to worry about that one way, at least, that I’ve experienced heaven in this last week or two has been to realize that there’s so much to worry about that I can’t afford to engage in that process much at all. I really can’t afford to worry, because once I start going down that path, there’s way too much to worry about if I’m going to take it all seriously.

And so about a week ago, I just simply said “You know what? There’s way too much to worry about, therefore I’m just not going to worry.”

I must admit, I haven’t been perfect at that, but it’s been actually pretty good, really, it’s saved me from a lot of anxiety. You know, Jesus didn’t say “Don’t pay attention to those things to be worried about in the future,” he didn’t say “Don’t plan for the future, don’t strategize,” or what have you, he simply said “Don’t worry about all that.”

And so that’s what I’ve done. He said “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries in and of itself, so let the worries of the day be the worries of the day.”

Let me just put that out there as the first way that you yourself might find a bit of heaven in the now, is if you cut off worrying about everything that takes place after today and just concentrate on today, the worries of this very moment.

One of the things I like to do is, when the Muslim call to prayer sounds, which it does five times a day, instead of going, like the Muslims do, into a series of prostration prayers, I get up and wash my hands during this pandemic. But I do so prayerfully, not simply for sanitation purposes. So I get the water all nice temperature, and I picture one of my hands represents my health, and another hand represents the health of another person I want to pray for.

And so as I’m washing my hands, and even look at the fingernails too, get underneath the fingernails sometimes, I’m praying for the health of another person and for myself. And I’m also just recognizing how pleasant the water feels. What is holy water? Holy water is any water that reminds us that all water is holy. And so this is a holy experience, a prayerful experience. An experience that moves beyond sanitation to true health, and do this five times a day. Prayer, we join the Muslim community, just in my own way, during this global pandemic.

Finally we’ll close out this episode with, well, over food for thought.

During a global pandemic, we spend a lot of time worrying about what’s invisibly present around us that may harm us. But it’s just as important if, not more so, to pay attention to what is simply visibly present around us that blesses us, sometimes within that which is directly in front of our face, like our food.

During this time of quarantine, I’ve reflected on food and the sacredness of it, and reestablished a practice I developed a few years ago and then just in the last year kind of drifted away from, I’m not sure exactly why. But I thought it’s important during this time to bring it back, because it reminds me of the blessings that I experience even amidst the stresses. The food before me provides a chance, at least three times a day, to be aware of the blessings, and to be aware of the sacredness of my life and that which is around me. So I’m going to take you through a typical meal that I’m eating now, and perhaps the way I go through it will spark ideas for you about how to make your own meals more sacred. I am a big barbecue lover, and many people know that. And I had a friend recently ship me an entire box of Joe’s Barbecue from Kansas City. And so what I do is, first of all, put on my plate that which I would want to eat. Doesn’t mean mean what’s I am going to eat, but this is a portion I would normally like to eat. I love barbecue, as you can tell.  Then I’m going to also start, though, with a glass of water, recognizing that water is sacred, and I think about that how precious it is for life on Earth, how fortunate I am that it comes from my tap, and it’s clean and it’s safe and it’s good to drink. So I’m going to concentrate on the holiness of that water, for any water is holy that reminds us that all water is holy.

And I’m going to just drink in that holiness and concentrate on it for a while before I start my meal. Then I’m going to turn to my plate and divide that portion, that full-sized portion, in half, exactly in half and then I’m going to take that one of those halves and divide it in half. So I have two quarter portions. I’m going to really focus on that first quarter portion to be eating very mindfully. Every bite, I’m going to savor what flavors are coming out, and by the way, where did that bean come from? What fields may have it come from? Who may have had a hand in purpose in harvesting it, and so forth? I may not know that I’m going to give thanks for these things, and same thing with every portion of that I eat.

That meat, what animal gave its life, and how does it taste? I’m going to give thanks for it and say “This is my body which is broken for you, for all this food is part of the body.” If Christ’s energy is in all things, or that the energy of God that wants to incarnate itself. It’s part of God’s body so I’m going to treat it like that, even that little taste of barbecue sauce.m As I go through that quarter portion, I’m just going to keep focusing as mindfully as I can, as slowly as I can, not scooping up another bite before I finish chewing the other one. And by the time I get through that quarter I’m oftentimes satiated enough for my whole meal. Then I’m going to turn to the can of Coke or whatever I have to drink, along with my water, and I’m going to say “This is my blood which is shed for you.” Even if it’s a lowly can of Coke, it’s, again, part of that part of God which incarnates Godself. And I’m going to think about the flavors. I love Coke Zero, and all the hands that have really been at work to bring that can to me. I give thanks for it all. And then there’s that second quarter, and I may just not eat it all, but oftentimes, well, I do like barbecue. So I’m going to eat that second quarter, and just enjoy it, just the joy of eating it slowly and mindfully, maybe not as with as much mindfulness as that first quarter, but still being very aware. And by the time I’ve done, if I’ve done it right, I will absolutely be completely satiated after just one-half of what I normally would have eaten.

I can’t imagine eating any more, I’m so full on so many levels. So I put it in the refrigerator and I save that portion for my next sacred meal.


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