Each Sunday our Beloved musicians, Elizabeth Silvia and Emily Harrison, drive up to the empty church to record our church music. This past weekend, after they recorded, I got a text from Emily. They had lost the video for one song and only had the audio.
I told Emily it was no problem, and I could put a stock photo of the church or the barn or something for that last song. But then I started thinking it would be more engaging if we had other video to put music too.
I didn’t have a lot of videos on my computer, but quickly found some footage from one of my favorite afternoons of camp life ever. Conveniently, the footage was from the same week of camp that would have started this week: Bridge Camp.
At Bridge Camp, campers with special needs are paired with high school students and they enjoy and incredible week of camp together. It is a truly magical week of camp. You can read some of my other Bridge Camp stories here and here.
Last year, on the last day of camp, while I was shuttling some of our Bridge Campers back from the waterfront, Jimmy caught my ear about how we had to have a dance competition. He had lots of ideas. He had chosen the judges already, and the prizes (coloring books). There was a structure in place for the dancing and judging. I laughed and agreed a dance competition would be a good idea.
Jimmy approached me at lunch a couple of hours later and it became very clear to me that he believed that the dance competition was a sure deal. After he walked away from the table I looked at the other staff I was sitting with. “Well,” I told them, “looks like we need to schedule a dance competition.”
The Bishop was on his way up to visit so I called him to be sure he could be a celebrity judge. We rearranged the afternoon schedule to accommodate for the competition. We signed up campers who wanted to take part. We set up the pavilion for the event. And when the time came, we gathered everyone together.
What followed was one of the most incredible hours of camp life I’ve experienced to date. The dancing was carefree and beautiful. Laughter and tears flowed from the group gathered to watch. The cheering was enthusiastic and steady. At the end, we gave crayons to everyone who had participated – I could see Jimmy becoming agitated (that was not the plan). Then we announced that we had a special prize for the event organizer, and we presented Jimmy with three new coloring books. The Bishop presented him with his prize, and he grabbed the microphone to make a speech. He offered a long list of people and circumstances that he would like the Bishop to pray for and thanked the crowd. When he finished, as you can see in the video below, he handed the mic back to the Bishop and turned to high-five the judges.
The footage we took on video wasn’t perfect – our angles were weird and those of us with cameras were so busy taking in the moment we didn’t get all the right shots. But you can catch a glimpse of the joy.
I started pulling the clips and dragging them into the video of the music Emily and Elizabeth had sent me.
We have come to the mountain of the Living God…
It was perfect. Because that dance competition was, undoubtedly, a moment of encounter with the Living God. A mountaintop experience.
I admit that watching the video also brought sadness. Not only because of the obvious reason, that Bridge Camp is not starting this week, but more because it highlighted what I think has been missing throughout this pandemic. We humans have found ways of celebrating, laughing, and finding joy in the last few months. We are resilient, after all. But even in the most beautiful moments we’ve had recently there is a cloud that hovers in the distance. We can’t un-know everything that’s happening in the world around us, and it lurks there, even when we are are trying to put all our focus on joy and love.
While painful to realize that, it was helpful. I keep wondering if this whole thing is as bad as it seems. Like maybe I’m just being overdramatic. But watching our freedom in this video exposed the truth – that these are unprecedented times, and that our communal experience of grief has been, and will continue for a time, to lurk in the corners. As grief is prone to do.
This video also served as a promise. We will not be in this place forever. Joy will come again, and sometime in the future – who knows when – we’ll throw our arms up to dance with reckless abandon and suddenly realize, “Oh look – we’re back.”
I got a message from a friend the other day. She was spun up, and asking “Why do people keep saying this is our new normal?? What does that even mean? I don’t want this to be the new normal. Does this mean it will be normal to not hug people?”
I understood why she felt so panicky. I’ve felt that too, and I’ve heard the words “new normal” thrown around quite a bit over the last couple of months.
It reminded me of the first time I heard or at least paid attention to the words. Years ago, a perfectly normal day suddenly changed when I got a call from my best friend. She was calling me from the pediatrician’s office, and something was wrong with her daughter Emma’s bloodwork. I went to the doctor’s office to meet her, and by the time the day had ended her daughter was in the hospital with a leukemia diagnosis. It was sharp and sudden and totally life-changing.
A week or so later I was staying with her infant son at a hotel down the street from the hospital so my friend could be as close as possible to both children. One night as we were in the hotel room having dinner together, she pulled up an email she had received from her mom. Her mom, a cancer survivor herself, tried offer reassurance by saying, “you will settle into your new normal.”
My friend and I both balked. We were still shaken and scared about everything that had happened in such a short time. Things felt totally out of control. We didn’t know if her daughter would live or die. We didn’t want any part of what was happening to be “normal”. We wanted to be delivered from the hell we were suddenly finding ourselves in.
Normal? No thank you.
Weeks went by, and Emma stabilized. She came home from the hospital with a new routine of chemo, visiting nurses, hand washing, and very limited exposure to other people. Just about three years or so after her diagnosis, Emma got a clean bill of health, and has been healthy ever since.
In the end, my friend’s mother was right. Their family did have a new normal, and while that “normal” came with quite a bit of stress and some new ways of living their daily lives, they found their rhythm. Some days were harder than others. Many days had tremendous joy. Some days were just boring. So, you know – it was life.
Since then, life as they know it has resumed to mostly the way it was before cancer. (Or it had, until the pandemic) But some things never went back to how they had been. I can assure you my friend and her children knew how to wash their hands long before the videos started circulating on our Facebook feeds in late February. And they are vigilant about certain things – eating healthy foods, regular wellness checks, and monitoring fevers, for example. And mostly they never, never take having healthy children for granted. They have a profound appreciation for health, and life, and family.
When we talk about this “new normal” in life after corona-virus, I find myself thinking about my friend and her family. I think, understandably, hearing the suggestion that this is our “new normal” when many of us are still under stay at home orders is just coming too soon. We can’t consider this “normal”, nor should we. We are still living in the emergency stage of this virus.
I am hopeful that as we know more about the virus, and as we learn how to co-exist safely together, that we will find our new normal. I think it will look different than what we had, and I think the new normal is likely to last longer than we’d like. I think “normal” will come with stress, and new was of living. I think we’ll have some days that are harder than others, days that bring great joy, and days that are boring.
And then at some point (God willing) things will start to look a little more like they did before. But maybe (hopefully) with some permanent change as well. Like, we’ll all be really good about washing our hands. And we won’t take health for granted. And we’ll appreciate our friends, and family, and life a little more than we did before.
In the meantime, if someone suggests there’s a new normal, and that sends you into a panic? Go ahead and dismiss it. It just means you aren’t there yet. At some point in the future you’ll wake up and say “you know what? This is starting to feel normal.” Doesn’t mean that the new normal isn’t sad, it just means we’ve adapted to living in it. We’ll get there. I’m sure of it.
I won’t lie to you, today has not been my favorite day of this pandemic. I’m not sure I could even pinpoint why, I just know I woke up grumpy and I stayed grumpy. I even tried to re-start the day a couple of times. I tried doing one of my coloring sheets to reset, and then one of my kids accidentally colored on my sheet. Then I tried to go for a run (an indication that things are really dire) but I got a block into it and the hurricane force winds had me turning around as fast as I started. Then I tried to take a nap, but I’m not actually capable of naps.
Honestly the day has reminded me of one of my favorite childhood books that, to my delight, has morphed into a fabulous pandemic meme:
Memes, I tell you. They are keeping me going through all this.
The other thing keeping me going (and simultaneously causing me to lose my mind) are my small children. Emily is 3 and Sam is 5 and they have all the needs. Part of my issue with today was that it started with Sam bursting into my room full of volume and enthusiasm at 5:30am, Lord help me. And when that child is awake there’s no turning back. THIS IS THE DAY THAT THE LORD HAS MADE AND I SHALL DEMAND 3-5 BREAKFASTS.
I’m tired, for sure. But if I’m being honest the kids have also been a burst of positivity on the days that feel overwhelming. Just as their energy never subsides, neither does their enthusiasm. They are excited to see me every single day, even on my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ones.
Yesterday, in one of two good parenting moments I’ve had since this thing started, Sam and I decided to start a project together. He had made some puppets out of paper bags, and wanted to have them star in a short film. I’m always up for movie-making, so agreed to be the director of his film. Though I learned quite quickly that I was only permitted to be the technical support, because somebody had big plans of his own and wanted no part of my creative input, thank you very much.
I asked if he had a screenplay and he told me he’d be making it up as he went along. We set up the blue blanket that we have discovered doubles as a green screen and he got to it, demanding re-takes when necessary.
Now some of you have been part of my creative projects before, and you know that Sam doesn’t get his bossy pants from nowhere. When it comes to creative ventures I have a clear vision and no issue shutting down well-meaning ideas that don’t align with the vision. Sam has fully inherited this trait from me, and as soon as the filming wrapped he came with me upstairs to dictate what scenes would play behind the puppets.
“Mommy, I want a door closing and locking and it has to be raining outside.”
We had to compromise.
“Mommy, I want it to say ‘and it’s called Super Helper Team.'”
I insisted that didn’t make much sense, and he did not care.
“Mommy, I want it to be like I’m in the theater in the movie talking to everyone. Like there’s people in the theater.”
Insert eye roll here, but he got lucky with that one.
When it was over, we had a blissfully short feature film that Sam was terribly proud of. He immediately demanded that I send it to all his friends. So it wasn’t a huge surprise to me that when I asked him if I could share it with “a bunch of people” he eagerly agreed.
So here’s the debut of “Super Helper Team”, written, directed by, and starring Sam Brower. In case you get confused, “hop-hops” are what Emily called bunnies when she was little.
I hope if your day has been anything like mine this will bring a smile to your face. And if the movie doesn’t make you smile, I hope the image of Sam putting me to work with his endless list of demands does…
I just took my kids on a walk through the neighborhood so that we could sprinkle the streets with rainbows. The idea came to me in a moment of desperation this morning when even they didn’t want to watch anymore tv. (Yikes)
I went upstairs to root for the new sidewalk chalk that the Easter Bunny was going to deliver later this week and we jumped into the wagon to circle the neighborhood.
Right about when I started to feel tired from dragging the wagon around I found my attention turning to Holy Week, which we entered yesterday with our Palm Sunday worship. I’ve thought a lot about Holy Week the last few weeks – wondering how we will honor these days, wondering how we can connect online with any bit of the same impact our connection in person offers us, wondering how the celebration of Easter this Sunday can possibly bring a feeling of joy and new life as the peak of illness and death from COVID 19 has yet to even come.
As I turned these questions in my mind for what felt like the hundredth time while we walked, I decided to make the question simpler. Instead of asking myself “what should Holy Week look like?”, I asked myself “What is holy?’
As soon as I shifted my perspective I heard the words of a Peter Mayer song that I have loved for years pipe into my mind. The words from his simple refrain answered my question as quickly as I asked it:
Everything, everything, everything is holy now.
I looked back down at my kids while they giggled together in the wagon, totally unaware of why the world needed rainbows. I thought of the neighbors we had encountered with more care and compassion then we typically display with one another. I thought of the joy I felt when a new puppy trotted with its owner across the street from us. And things started to click for me.
Here’s the thing about this time we’re living in: It is scary, and confusing, and uncertain. Words I keep using over and over again – I’m so tired of using these words.
But this time is also holy. This is a vigil. We are, all of us, holding vigil together. We know that some of us are sick. We know that some of us are dying. We know that many of us are heading to work to serve others when all work right now comes with so much risk. And whether we are out working or staying at home, we are waiting, watching, holding vigil.
This Holy Week will be different from any we’ve experienced before, there is no doubt of that. But while we can’t gather together in our churches the way we have for centuries to hold vigil for Jesus, we can honor that this collective experience we are sharing right now is just as much a way to honor God and to honor God in one another as we have ever experienced. There will be no Easter Vigil at Church of the Beloved this year, but we will vigil. We will wait for death. We will care for one another the best we can in our waiting and in our grief. And we will believe that God will make all things new in ways beyond our imagination. And it will be holy.
A friend of mine texted me yesterday and posed the question, “what’s it like to minister to people in all this?”
While I’ve certainly spent time thinking about the fact that I’m ministering in “all this” I hadn’t really thought about the answer to the question. But the words jumped to my fingertips as quickly as they flashed into my brain:
“It’s like playing pin the tail on the donkey,” I said. “I’m trying so hard to get it right, but I don’t know where the target is, I can’t see, and I’m dizzy.”
This might not be a metaphor for the ages, but it does pretty much sum up how it feels to be ministering right now. I’ve never done this before. We’ve never done this before. Not that I read books or anything, but even if I did I wouldn’t be able to find one about pastoral care during a pandemic in modern America. There is no book. Everyone is just making it up as we go, and doing the best we can. Myself included.
I had hoped that God would infuse me with profound thoughts and wise words during this kind of thing, so that I could preach sermons that would impact the masses (and by masses I mean the 20 or so people that regularly attend Church of the Beloved).
And yet, God has not given me wisdom. God has not inspired the most beautiful poetry I have ever written. The Spirit has not breathed on me words that will propel us through this difficult time with poignant serenity.
No, God has given me parodies.
Now for clarification, I tend to credit God with most of my creative efforts. There is a freshness to a spark of creativity that for me, feels divine. My creative self feels like my best self, my God-given self, and so practicing that creativity is part of practicing my spirituality.
All that said I’m not sure if God really wants any credit for my recent creativity.
Spoiler alert, tomorrow’s parody is going to be a love song to my weighted blanket. So…
But pray as I might for inspiration on my sermons, that’s not what’s coming. Neil Diamond hits are coming. 80s hits in general. But I mean, try to tell me 80s music doesn’t bring you closer to God because I. WILL. FIGHT. YOU.
The parodies have been fun, and I do think there is wisdom to making space for fun and joy in the midst of stress and anxiety. I believe God yearns for that for us. But parodies don’t solve the fact that here I am, on the third week of this pandemic, preaching to you about… I’m not sure what. When I dig deep into my soul for a sermon I find a valley of dry bones. And not a prophesy to be found. It’s just dry. Real dry.
So that has been a struggle for me. In the midst of everything else being a little bit of a struggle. Preaching is kind of the thing that I’ve always been a little lucky with. The words come. But maybe it’s because I’m working so hard to also figure out facebook live or Instagram live or how to get in the same screen with my musicians – maybe there’s just not enough room or something.
I don’t know.
When I read these readings for this week – the valley of dry bones and Lazarus rising from the dead – my first, second, third and fourth thoughts were “we don’t need a sermon on these readings. These readings speak for themselves right now.” What can I possibly add to these words that have already been spoken here tonight? Surely everyone feels the dryness and despair of death right now. Surely everyone longs to have new life, new skin, new health breathed onto all of us. Surely I am not the only person desperate for God right now, wondering if Jesus weeps with us in this uncertainty and worry.
So yeah, no sermon needed. You can read.
But typically, when I read a passage of scripture and there’s no sermon there, it’s because I’m not engaged with the right parts for me. So I suppose as an act of desperation (because cancelling church really felt like an easy way out) I kept coming back to the readings. I kept reading and praying and reading and praying until finally I realized what the issue was.
And now listen – this is the part where I’m just reaching around blind trying to find where the tail of the donkey is meant to land. I don’t know if my searching for meaning in these passages reflects what you need to find or connect with in these passages. But since I can’t see – since I’m a little dizzy myself – all I can do is take my best guess, and tell you what it’s like from behind my blindfold.
What I realized, when I came back to the readings again, is that even though my well of inspiration for preaching might feel like a valley of dry bones right now, I do not feel like a valley of dry bones right now. And I don’t feel like Lazarus, dead in the grave, waiting to be brought back to life. I don’t have anything to say about that new life being breathed into the bones, into Lazarus, because I don’t feel that way right now. We are surrounded by death and the threat of death, but I do not feel death myself.
In fact, I feel quite the opposite. I feel alive. Perhaps the most alive I have ever felt. NOTHING that I’m doing in my life is unconscious right now. I am aware of every feeling: every surge of anxiety, every tear of despair, every swell of joy, every wave of panic. I am aware of the people and the communities and the practices that matter most to me in my life, and I’m aware of the things that fill my time that simply don’t matter – the things that have become important by default. I am aware of how precious my loved ones are, and how much all those strangers that felt so different and apart from me before a month ago because we held different political or world beliefs suddenly matter to me. I’m aware of how much I have taken things for granted – the availability of food at the grocery store, the waiter in a restaurant, the experience of sitting next to someone at a pew and hugging them at the peace. And this whole range of human experience and emotion existed before three weeks ago, but I simply wasn’t always conscious.
So the last thing I need right now is more life. More flesh. More breath.
These readings weren’t doing anything for me because in my own confusion and disorientation I decided that I should most connect with those that were dead in these readings.
But I am not dead. I am so very alive.
I am not Lazarus in this story, I am Martha. I am Mary. I am experiencing a life event that is so outside of my typical experience that – like grief – it brings everything around me into sharp focus. I am confused and uncertain and there has been loss – not quite the same as the loss of a loved one, but a more nebulous loss that I can’t yet define or explain. And in my hazy grief I realize what I didn’t appreciate before, and what really matters now. But the clarity of purpose doesn’t cancel out the darkness and despair.
I am Mary, and Martha, meeting Jesus on the road and saying
“Where have you been? What exactly are you doing here? If you were here, this couldn’t have happened.”
That these two women would meet Jesus, and be so very bold. It is stunning. And though Jesus could have rebuked them instead he meets them with tenderness, greatly moved, and disturbed in spirit. And he asks, do you believe?
And even in their doubt, even in their grief, even in their accusation, even in their confusion and unknowing, they believe.
They don’t know how Jesus will undo what has been done. They don’t know he could transform their grief into joy. They don’t know how he could make right what had gone so horribly wrong. But somehow, when pressed, they admit that they believe. I believe you are the Messiah.
Maybe it’s because I have the benefit of these stories my whole life, but more likely because I have seen God transform even my darkest moments into light, I believe too. I believe that in a way I cannot anticipate or understand that God is working here, and that resurrection – a resurrection beyond one that we could possibly have experienced before – is coming.
If we are very, very lucky, we will come out of this with a strong grip on our alive-ness, and those things which we have realized with such clarity will continue to hold meaning in our lives. And maybe resurrection for us will look like an end to apathy and complacency. Maybe resurrection will look like a collective restructuring of how we spend our time – our most precious resource. Maybe resurrection will look like a wave of compassion towards the people around us, even those that are different, because we realize they matter. The possibilities for resurrection are endless.
While I look forward to the resurrection ahead, we are still in Lent now. We are still in the waiting. Still in the wilderness. And there’s no telling what the timeline will look like for wilderness vs. resurrection in this particular season. I am not sure if the wilderness will be confined to 40 days or if the fullness of the resurrection will be realized when our church calendar changes to the Easter season. But regardless of how this timeline works out, we need both of these experiences – the wilderness and the resurrection – to be in relationship with one another regardless of the calendar date and the season of the church year. The people we become in the wilderness will determine how we live out the resurrection. Our aliveness and awareness matters – now, and in what is to come.
And in the meantime, if all you can muster is to meet Jesus on the road and accost him – ask him where he’s been or what the hell he’s been doing, or tell him that if he was really here all this wouldn’t have happened. Well? Jesus can handle it. Jesus will meet you where you are with tenderness and understanding. God transforms this world whether or not we can understand what’s happening in it. Abundant grace rains down on us regardless of if we are cranky and confused or grateful and accepting. Resurrection happens even in our darkest moments of doubt and despair.
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.
Some other time I’ll cover how totally mortified I am to think of all those people seeing me dance like a moron all by myself, or we can unpack why I felt the need to double wave. Lord have mercy.
But late last night, as I watched our engagements and number of views climb I started wondering why there was so much of a response to this post. I figure it must be one of two reasons:
You all are very kind, and you sympathy-liked or commented on this post to try to lessen the sheer mortification you were feeling on my behalf. Or,
People are really craving some joy right now.
I think it’s mostly the second option (thanks to those of you for whom it was the first – I see you, and I appreciate you.) I felt the joy while I was doing it. I had to face the screen towards me so I could make sure I wasn’t dancing out of view, so I saw the comments and likes coming in as I danced. I felt like we were together. The sun was out, the music was blaring, and even though it made my whole body hurt the jumping and dancing and smiling really worked. I wasn’t faking that up there – I was joyful.
I went to bed feeling a slight vulnerability hangover but mostly really glad that so many of us had shared something fun together. Some of you sent me videos of you dancing in your living rooms (it’s not too late to still do that!), many of you sent words of thanks. I felt connected. I felt grateful. I felt good.
This morning I woke up and laid in bed while I listened to the rain outside wondering what today would bring. I find planning pointless these days, because nothing happens as I think it might. I came downstairs and poured myself my coffee and picked up Facebook (because I don’t heed my own advice) and almost immediately saw this comment in my Facebook feed:
And in a moment, I was crying in my kitchen.
I’ve been doing a lot of self talk lately. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m still being paid. I have people in my house so I’m not totally alone. At least for now I can still stand in the barn at ECC and read the words of Compline. The internet exists. I have toilet paper. I should just be grateful. This could be so much worse.
And all that is true. But what the wise mama on my Facebook feed said is also true. There is grief in this for every single one of us. We have all experienced so much change so quickly. We have experienced loss and at the time of this writing we have no idea how much more loss we will sustain before this is over. Grief is wholly appropriate. It felt good to cry.
Which got me thinking. Yesterday I saw our collective deep craving for joy, and today tapped into a well of grief I didn’t know I had. And I bet I’m not the only one carrying that around. So if the need to experience these two emotions is so strong – what’s happening in us as we move through these days?
My best guess is that we are walking around trapped in between. It’s incredibly hard to access joy when we are so anxious, and it feels almost taboo to do so when we know so many people are struggling. And I think we are terrified to tap into the grief for fear of being overwhelmed.
So what happens instead is we are hovering in this middle place – this purgatory. We don’t allow joy or grief and so instead all that’s left is….anxiety.
But friends, we need to be brave here. Brave enough to feel. We needed to dance together yesterday, and we might need to cry with one another today, and we need to allow for that full range of emotion. Each of these moments – the good and the bad – they pass. I think we will do well for ourselves if we let ourselves sink in to both. Allow yourself a good belly laugh and the high of endorphins, and allow yourself to sink into a pile of tears. I don’t think these feelings will overwhelm you – I think they will set you free.
I want to leave you with some of my favorite words on this idea, from the writer Kahlil Gibran.
Please go easy on yourselves, friends. This is hard, and we can do hard things. Even when the hardest part is just living into all the feelings that come up along the ride.
My mother has offered me countless nuggets of wisdom over my lifetime, but one of the ones I remember well and yet have always struggled with is a Buddhist saying:
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
The first several times she offered this to me I couldn’t grab hold of it. I didn’t know exactly what it meant, and I couldn’t figure out how to parse out the difference between the two.
Then one day, after I had experienced a devastating break up and my first real heartbreak I was sitting in my room wallowing in my tears, which had become a regular practice. I glanced down beside me and saw the novel that I was reading, lying in wait for me to dive back into the story. I looked at the book, considered it for a moment, then shook my head. “No,” I said to myself, “I just feel like all I can do is sit here in my misery. I don’t have the capacity to read.”
And then, suddenly, the lightbulb went off in my brain: Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.
There was no avoiding the pain I was experiencing from the loss of a relationship. That pain would be with me until it went away (which took about a year, for what it’s worth). But I did NOT have to choose to sit with misery as my companion. I could pick up my book. I could lose myself in a story. I could allow myself some reprieve.
As we all sit in wait of what the next thing the CDC or government is going to recommend in the midst of the spread of COVID-19, I have found myself reflecting on that nugget of wisdom quite a bit. That exact line doesn’t work, but some variation of it does:
Gathering information is necessary, panic is optional.
Planning is necessary, obsession is optional.
Staying home if you’re sick is necessary, buying toilet paper is optional.
Kidding on that last one, of course. Couldn’t resist.
But here’s the thing: I’ve been trying to send out a couple of emails for 48 hours now and I can’t get it done. I can’t get to it because I’m either fielding phone calls from people who are spinning with the magnitude of this thing or I’m pacing my kitchen trying to figure out if I have enough food in the freezer for…what? I’m not even sure. The not-knowing what exactly is about to happen is causing its own anxiety.
This is unchartered territory for us, and there’s a lot of unkowns still. But there are also some ways we can mitigate the anxiety, and walk through this as informed, careful, sane humans. I believe in us. We can do this.
Here are a few thoughts I’ve had about how to navigate this time – how to choose NOT to obsess or panic:
Easy on that social media, Sparky. Listen, as we’re being asked to practice “social distancing” this is perhaps the most grateful I’ve ever been for technology, because we still need to be connected. But your Facebook newsfeed is dangerous territory right now. This is a great time to create some groups and post encouraging words to one another, offer support, and share cat videos. If you are accessing Facebook on a computer browser, consider getting a news feed eradicator extension, which allows you to go on Facebook and visit the groups without seeing the newsfeed.
Watch Love is Blind, not CNN. If there’s ever been a time to give thanks for crappy reality shows, it is now. You can read articles and listen to podcasts (as long as you are checking your sources) to get the information that you need, but the news media is trying to fill a 24-hour news cycle and they will sensationalize. Wouldn’t you rather see Amber get engaged?
Laugh. We don’t need to be making light of something that is very serious, but a little levity will go a long way for us right now. And the internet is full of amazing memes and gifs to keep us going. Endorphins, people. We need them.
Exercise. Doesn’t need to be fancy. Push-ups in your living room will do. (See what I did there? I made you laugh! WE ALL KNOW I DON’T DO PUSH-UPS)
Read a book, play a board game, listen to a podcast. All of these things will help you unplug for a while and you can, at least temporarily, forget about coronavirus. Your brain needs a break! There are countless podcasts that will inspire you and help you connect with God, like this one.
Check in on someone else. Like I said earlier, we need to be connected right now. Take a Lysol wipe to your iphone and start using it! Call people you often call, and call people you don’t usually call. See how they are doing. Crack a few jokes. See if they need anything. If you are young and healthy and good about not touching your face, deliver a few groceries to someone that can’t leave the house. If you are in a position where your income will not suffer from not being at work, buy an amazon gift card or some groceries for someone who isn’t as fortunate. Doing something for others will help you feel like you do have control at a time when it’s feeling like control is being taken away from you. Take it from Olaf:
Go easy with self-medicating. Wine and brownies are starting to look reallllll good right now, but ultimately will not help you have your best brain. Moderation is important, and so are vegetables.
Pray. Crazy, I know, but I’m convinced that this will help too. For me, it’s especially helpful to do something with my hands. Folding origami stars, for instance. Write the name of someone you are praying for on the paper and get to work. Write letters or cards to people letting them know you are thinking of them. Read scripture.
Listen to music – all the music. It will soothe your soul. Start with this one, which I have a particular affection for.
Breathe. We’ll get through this. We are taking extraordinary measures to prevent things from getting worse. It feels extreme, but we are being as careful as we can be. We are helping keep people safe and healthy.
Friends, this is hard, but we’re in this together. Please love yourselves and others – love is the very best antidote to fear. And when you find yourself faced with a moment where you can choose something other than panic – do it! You’ll be glad you did.
Quick note: Some of us havevery real anxiety issues, and I am not trying to suggest that you can choose your way out of that. Call your doctor and have your prescriptions refilled. Call your therapist, because insurance companies are approving phone meetings right now. Take care of yourself. (THEN watch Love is Blind.)
The following is an appeal letter that went out to our ECC mailing list this month. Please enjoy the story. We are grateful for all you do for ECC!
Towards the end of
last summer we were sitting at dinner one night when there was some kind of
disturbance outside where the campers were sitting. I heard lots of people
jumping from their seats and yelling. Some of my older staff, seated inside,
also jumped up to move to the windows to see what was happening.
My heart skipped a
beat, because the commotion immediately indicated to me that perhaps there was
a fight breaking out. The movement of people to see what was happening and
quick response triggered my response before I could stop it. It only took a second for my brain to catch
up and remind me that I was at camp. In
the totally unlikely event that a fight had broken out, one of my staff would
have yelled for me immediately. I took a breath, and decided it was probably
some other teenage silliness. I decided not to feed into it by getting up to
look, and let it play out.
Seconds later, one
of my program staff turned from the window where she had moved to see, and
looked across the room to me. A smile beaming from ear to ear she called out:
As fast as my
heart had panicked moments before, it melted to mush.
These kids, man.
In a world where their peers leap from their seats to watch or video tape a
fight breaking out in high school, they caused equal a commotion to see a rainbow. I moved outside to see myself,
and noticed that most people had abandoned their trays and tables to look up to
the sky in wonder.
It was the magic
of camp in one fleeting, beautiful moment.
In Genesis, God
points to a bow in the sky while making a promise to Noah, saying “this is a
sign of my covenant I make with you.” He is promising to protect and are for
Noah and all things now living.
In June at our 70th
Anniversary Gala, many of you made a promise to ECC to make a sustaining
monthly donation to our ministry here. We were overwhelmed by your generosity,
and we are now heading into 2020 with the promise of funding that you have
made. It will help us budget and plan with more ease, and those gifts will
ensure that campers can come to a camp where the cool kids jump up and start
yelling like fools when a rainbow floods the sky.
What we learned at
the Gala is something we have known at ECC for years – many hands make light
work. So many of you committed to a small amount of money every month, but
together those commitments change the financial landscape for ECC, and help us
enter a new phase of our lives and ministry.
If you already
make a monthly donation and would like to increase it, we would be most
If a one-time annual gift is a better fit for you, we get that, and we are so humbled that you would consider ECC as a recipient of your generosity.
If you aren’t in a
position to give or to give more, I hope you’ll find joy in a good story about
The ECC community
never ceases to astound me. Your love and commitment to this ministry keeps us
going, practically and spiritually as
move through our program year. Your promise to support and uphold ECC helps us
to realize God’s dreams for this place, and together you bring bright bows of
color to our common life.
This sermon was written and delivered by Faith Bessette at Church of the Beloved, Sunday, November 24. The audio of this sermon can be heard here:
Last week when Meaghan asked me to give the sermon today, she said it might be a good space to talk about my experience in Colorado this past year.
It honestly feels like some kind of fever dream by now.
It was a total whirlwind of change, and growth, and frankly some punches to the gut about the reality of what we’re facing as a nation, as a planet even.
I think we’re in a compassion drought. Maybe we always have been.
Maybe I was blinded by sweet lifetime movies and candy coated facebook videos of dogs reacting to their owners coming back from deployment.
Not that those things aren’t pure & good in their own ways..
But we’re lacking in long term compassion I think. We are living in an age of instant gratification. Constant access to content that fuels our feel-good cravings. We can click and swipe and watch- an infinite amount.
We have an ability to continuously shovel a synthetic feeling of compassion that feeds our human condition in just the right way.
Is that bad? I’m not sure. But I think we’ve lost a little bit of the rawness and realness of what it means to be human, in relation to others experiencing this flawed human world too. Or maybe I’m just full of it. Who’s to say?
When I read the gospel, an obvious connection to this idea popped out.
We’re dropped into the scene of Jesus’s crucifixion, this iconic picture of three crosses stuck perpendicular to the ground.
“They crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.”
I reread the gospel a few times but just kept getting stuck on the people standing around, casting lots to divide his clothing, in that moment of crucifixion, of helplessness.
Rifling through his stuff for the things they wanted for themselves, when he was at his most vulnerable.
Even when I repeat it, I’m sure you can picture it in your minds eye.
It’s a pretty grotesque idea really.
But right beside this picture in my head, I saw a mirror image almost..
Of something that used to happen at the shelter sometimes.
For those of you that don’t know, I spent a year in Denver as a full time volunteer at an overnight shelter for youth experiencing homelessness. It’s called Urban Peak.
I met hundreds of young people, all unique in their situations, and levels of independence.
As is expected at a non-lock down facility, folks would come in for a night or two & sometimes we’d never see them again.
Others would stay longer, some had been there for years.
But often, we’d get teenagers just passing through for short periods of time, for one reason or another.
Some people showed up with rubbermaid bins, duffel bags, even trunks full of belongings they’d picked up along the way.
Some would show up with a single plastic grocery bag. Personal belongings change in value when you’re homeless.
For some, they can mean absolutely nothing. Things don’t carry as much value when you’re struggling to survive. There’s something that happens in the brain when you experience trauma like that.
Any kind of trauma really, but I noticed a specific shift while working with these young people.
Suddenly, anyone you meet, anything you do, anything you have, it’s all surrounded by this survival instinct.
This feeling of imminent loss that’s nearly impossible to shake. Especially at 17.
You could have a full wardrobe one day, a couple of pairs of shoes.
A cell phone. An ID, a social security card. But if something goes down that make you feel unsafe. You run. You run and you don’t look back. Because that’s all you know now. Your body is running on fear 80 percent of the time.
Fear of not making it out of this dark place,
fear of others who could hurt you like your loved ones did,
fear of not being enough for other people to see you.
Really see you as someone who is human.
At that point, a loss of things is just apart of surviving. That’s one common extreme.
But others hoard. They keep everything they can gather, anything that they can stake a claim on, huddled up in trash bags underneath their bunks.
Oversized clothing, broken electronics, even trash.
But on the day word would get out that so and so was MIA, hadn’t shown back up to the shelter in a few days, got picked up because they had warrants.
It was a free for all.
I want their shoes, I’m taking their backpack, etc etc.
Other kids, casting lots to divide their clothing.
At this person’s most vulnerable, most helpless and likely most fear filled moment. Their own possessions, some of the only physical things they have relationships with,
are stolen, snatched up, their owners forgotten.
In these two cases, those choices were often informed by an innate human instinct.
On one side, to run in fear. The other, to take advantage of that vulnerability to feed your own desires of gathering… stuff.
What’s so powerful about this gospel is that we’re seeing Jesus be human. He is at his weakest point. Nailed to a cross and one thousand percent vulnerable. As are the criminals beside him.
As they cast lots for his clothing, they are bidding on pieces of him, pieces of his humanity.
When you’re homeless it’s hard to see other people as human. You can barely recognize yourself as one. When you’re at the lowest of lows, with what feels like no one to turn to, it’s hard to remember what it feels like to be a part of a civil society. To follow the polite rules put in place to show each other basic compassion. To think that you still have a right to your own humanity. It’s easier to live into the idea that others look down on you, because you can then allow yourself to be spiteful and self serving.
And I won’t blame them for it!!
We all have the capacity to act in the same way, and we often do!!!
When I sat with these kids, talking, laughing, arguing. Experiencing the most beautiful and ugly parts of them. I could feel a constant itch at the back of my brain, this could be you. This could be any of us, the right set of circumstances and there we are digging through someone else’s trash bags for stuff to fill our own.
There’s a document we fill out with each client when they entered the program at Urban Peak. An intake form to gather some more info about where they’re at, and how we can best help them.
And there’s a section asking about where they slept the previous night. There were subcategories, and the most common one checked was filed under “not fit for long term human habitation”.
Filed under this were places like tents, cars, the street, mental hospitals, shelters. Shelters like the one I worked at.
The government classifies those things, and a few others, as places unfit for humans to exist long term. And they’re right!
These kids are obviously cared for, fed, clothed, given access to free hygiene products and facilities, free medical care, and free options to further their education.
BUT. There is a shift in the human psyche when you are labeled homeless.
There is a fight or flight switch that is flipped on.
There is a dog eat dog mentality when people look at you like you’re no better than a dirty animal.
I’m sure that’s hard to hear. And it’s also hard to see.
Not to say that all people view homeless teenagers like that. They don’t.
But that’s hard to believe when you’re in the thick of it you know?
To look into the eyes of an 18 year old boy, pretty much thrown away by any loved one he’s ever known, in and out of detention centers and jails for crimes he committed to survive, crimes he committed to be spiteful of those who can no longer see his humanness.
To know inside that he needs love and care and someone to trust in.
To know how funny and kind he can be.
To know he writes poetry in his bunk when he feels sad.
To know that he is being nailed to a cross and put on shameful display when he begs for money on the street because Mcdonald’s won’t hire a convict with a face tattoo.
To know that when we lose our ability to recognize humanness,
we make others feel less worthy of love & support & basic human rights like affordable housing and good food.
I don’t tell you all this to make you feel bad. To paint you a sob story of a poor homeless teenager. Because he wasn’t that. None of them were. They were human.
Humans who were resilient. Humans who were funny. Humans who were so so smart. Humans who have potential. Humans who are capable of incredible feats of compassion and love and kindness.
Humans who are capable, of nailing others to crosses because they made a few choices that we might not understand right now.
Just like you and I.
I tell you all this to make the point that the people you make assumptions about, the people who are different than you, the people who have made choices, or had choices that were made for them, who landed in less than ideal situations.
They are human.
They deserve that title.
They deserve grace.
They deserve to be seen as whole people who are capable of great and wonderful things, capable of change.
They just need a little love, understanding, and consistency to get them there.
We are all capable of that.
Capable of giving that to criminals, to the bad guys, even to people less than like-able like the guy in charge of our country right now. (I know.. barf.)
We can look at this gospel as a lesson in recognizing humanness, and the importance of treating people with dignity. Even those who we find it hardest to give.
Jesus was crucified between two criminals.
But there were three humans nailed to crosses that day.
Three humans humiliated by the hands of their fellow man.
Three humans who deserve better.
Who deserve compassion with longevity.
Let’s give it more freely, to others, to ourselves. Sometimes we’re crushing this human thing! Sometimes we aren’t.
Let’s give compassion to the idea that there are some circumstances that leave us feeling nailed to our own cross, naked and vulnerable.
Move with intentions of love, look people in the eye,
and grant others grace in their moments of unbridled humanity. Amen.