In 2018 our summer theme at ECC was 1 Peter 3:8: Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.
When I met with the rising counselors and young adult staff in January to choose the theme, this verse jumped out to all of us primarily because of two words:
At the time, we were feeling weary by the divisions in our country, and wanted to spend the summer exploring ways that we could soften towards the people around us, especially those who were different than us. We wanted to be tenderhearted.
Over the last few days I find myself reflecting on that theme with some regularity. This experience we are all living together is scary and confusing and wild and challenging and creative and unexpected. And through all of the unknowns and anxiety I have begun to experience something else as a theme through it all: tenderness.
Last night I walked into a cold barn with Faith, Joyce, and Lance for our third livestream service of Compline since this whole thing started in earnest. The four of us have said Compline in the barn together hundreds of times before, but always surrounded by at least another couple dozen people. These gatherings have been different – all of us spread out, a phone perched on a tripod, and the cold quiet filling the space around us. It looks a little like this:
Leading the service is surprisingly emotional. Words that we have said over and over again somehow take on new meaning.
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping.
Last night, as Joyce read the words to her favorite Compline psalm, 91, I felt chills through my body as she read the words
“There shall no evil happen to you,”
and we responded,
“neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.”
We are only four of us standing there, but somehow in the starkness of the empty barn we can feel all of you with us. And it is very, very tender.
The same is true for me at home, where I set up a home office after finally coming to terms with the fact that I would be working from here for some time. The first thing I set up was my prayer bowl, and a space where I could begin each day shuffling through the prayers that people have shared with me, and offering some of my own.
Yesterday I sat and prayed and wept, and even though I was all by myself, I felt everyone there with me. And it was tender.
What’s so interesting to me about all of this is that we aren’t doing anything we couldn’t have done before. We could have done a livestream Compline before this – we had the technology. We had the barn. We had the people. And I could have set aside a space for prayer in my home. We could have shared Church of the Beloved services on the internet – and allowed other people the access to the beautiful music and worship we share together there each week.
We could have done all of these things. We just didn’t.
There is something about sharing this experience together that brings into sharp focus how much we matter to one another – how much we rely on one another. We are sharing anxiety and grief and confusion, and suddenly it opens doors for creative new ways of connecting and consequently, for a tenderness that perhaps we don’t always experience together. Even though this time is scary, it is also beautiful.
It’s worth noting that sharing anxiety and grief and confusion with the larger world can also cause us to be a little more brittle. (For example, in the middle of writing this post I got into an argument with a family member that caused to me to feel decidedly not tenderhearted. Life is complicated.) I think that makes these shared experiences of prayer and connection even more important. With any luck the tenderness we share doing Compline together online help us to be tenderhearted to the people we are with in the grocery store line (and to our family members). With any luck tenderness can become grace, and we can see the people around us scared children of God, all of whom deserve connection and prayer.
I will be curious to see how we go back to “normal” whenever normal comes. I’d love to believe that this experience is shaping who we are as people of God. I’d love to believe this is fundamentally changing who I am as a priest, and helping me to re-prioritize the most important parts of my job: not email, but prayer. Not administration, but worship. Not excel sheets, but connection.
It’s impossible to know what will happen even though I have some guesses (some changes, other things resorting to the way they were before). But regardless of what comes in the future, I will be grateful today for the very tender connection I feel to all of you right now. We might not be together in person, but we are together in spirit, and I love being with you in this way.
Let us bless the Lord. Thanks be to God.