Rector's Ramblings March 18, 2020
As I prepared for this season of Lent, I decided I wasn’t going to give up as much as I usually do. Usually, I would pick out about three things and enter into the spiritual practice of fasting. This year I decided to be a bit more liberal and only chose one. Little did I know just how much we’d all be asked to give up during this season! Our fast from public gatherings, even small group gatherings in some cases, from dining out and movie theatres, and very shortly from a lot of other things, is intense, to say the least. And totally unexpected. Few of us, if any, have ever lived through anything quite like this, so we’re all learning together.
The framework for the Church’s season of Lent is a conceptual forty-day wilderness experience, modeled on Jesus’ own forty days in the wilderness following his baptism. In the case of Lent, it is a journey of preparation for baptism and the feast of the resurrection, not a result of it.
Jesus was socially distanced, at least from other humans. He fasted, prayed, and wrestled with demons (one notable and famous), before re-entering a normal way of life and beginning his ministry in earnest. We don’t know details about all the interior work that Jesus undertook in his wilderness wandering, but we can guess. We, and he, after all, share a common humanity.
I can’t say Jesus’s forty-day wandering was self-imposed. The Gospels tell us that the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness. So, while he may have walked on his own two feet, I wonder just how much “leading” the Spirit had to do. Sometimes shepherds lead, and sometimes they “lead,” after all. The staff they carry has multiple uses. Nonetheless, Jesus was not alone during his season of preparation, either. We know that angels and wild animals ministered to him. In other words, God did not forsake him during this time, but was present and active, even if unseen.
This Lenten framework is particularly poignant for us now because of the practice of self-quarantine that underlies our social distancing right now. Quarantine literally means forty days, a word that traces to a 14th-century Italian practice. During the time of the plague, ships arriving in Venice from infected areas were made to sit at anchor for forty days before they would be allowed to dock and unload. It was a way to make sure the disease did not spread further. Imagine the life of a mariner in the 14th century with no breeze and no Facebook and no Fox News for forty days, within sight of land and all that it held. It had to be maddening.
We have only just begun to stay at home and away from crowds and businesses. Think about how much has changed in the last week. Read how quickly life has changed in countries that are a few weeks ahead of us in this outbreak. It feels like we’re at anchor now, and we’re not even halfway through our wilderness experience. I don’t say that to spread fear, only to make sure we can begin to recognize what it is we have entered into and are prepared for it...as much as we can be. Not one of us planned or expected to give up all the things we are being “led” to fast from at the moment, so in some ways, we are assuredly unprepared.
I do not believe it is the Spirit who has led us into a pandemic, yet I do sense the Spirit doing some leading now that it is here. The lack of freedom to move around, even if it’s only voluntary for now, is one of the most disconcerting things that can happen to us as Americans.
It just feels strange and dangerous. It is humbling, to be sure. Such moves force us to confront our own relative size in the world, and that isn’t always comfortable. Like having to get out of the way of hurricanes, it is another reminder that we aren’t in control. Not to the extent that we like to think we are, anyway. For all that we have and can do, sometimes we must give in and be led to new ways of being and new understandings. One way or another, this pandemic and its effects are bringing that to bear.
As I mentioned in Sunday’s sermon, one of the things we might take away from this is just how connected we indeed are. Not just because viruses spread via community, but because it takes a community response to battle them. If everyone thinks only of themselves and what they want, there are literally deadly consequences for some. The vast majority of us will not develop severe symptoms from this disease if we are even infected, so we can make the case (as some self-centered folks do) that we shouldn’t have to do all this social distancing nonsense. The reality those arguments fail to recognize, however, is that we are connected. We are one, even if we are individuals.
A long time ago, Paul was trying to get through to the Corinthians, who were apparently skilled at arguing with one another and misunderstanding what community was all about. To illustrate his point, Paul said, “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…the members [should] have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…” We know that this disease disproportionately affects persons over the age of sixty, and much of this effort to social distance is to protect those persons. What’s more, the “flatten the curve” movement is an effort to spread the infections out over time so that the health system can treat coronavirus patients AND everyone else who suffers a health emergency.
This very morning, I was made aware of a healthy young woman affiliated with this parish who has suffered a traumatic head injury after a fall in another city. She is not truly at risk for COVID-19, but what would we tell her family in a week or two when there were no beds in ICU for her and no ventilators to help her breathe? If COVID-19 patients are so abundant that treatment isn’t available for others, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s not just about a particular group. We’re all in this together. And that is a reality worth meditating on as we take this unplanned wilderness journey.
It’s not only a matter of viral transmission that concerns our neighbors, but it’s also the choices we make every day as we go about our daily life. We don’t often stop to think about how our actions and decisions have unseen consequences. From the conditions of laborers to the spraying of pesticides to the manufacture of goods that are designed to be thrown away to the pollution and output of cars and factories – we are all in this together, though we don’t often consider it. And yet. Those things can want. We can address those later after we’ve dealt with what is very much in front of us right now.
We are in this together, and we are not alone. We are being led, or at least invited, to engage in an unplanned Lenten fast. The invitation to a holy Lent we heard on Ash Wednesday calls us to “self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” That invitation was then paired with the sign of ashes on our foreheads, a reminder of our mortality. So, too, is any discussion of COVID-19. We are not people who get lost in death; however, for we prepare for a reminder of the birth of new life, that is our hope. One of the prefaces we use at the eucharist in Lent bids us prepare with joy for the feast that is to come, “fervent in prayer and in works of mercy.” So, let’s put it all together and make the most of this time of wilderness and fasting. We can all agree we’ve covered the self-denial bit, so we’re already on our way.
In these days, remember that our God is going on this journey with us. We are being ministered to in the midst of our “quarantine.” As Mr. Rogers used to say, “look for the helpers.” What’s more, look for the places where we can be the helper. Since we’re in this together, let’s be together in spirit, where we can’t be physically together. Care for one another over the phone and the internet. Greet our neighbors over the hedges and leave notes for those who carry our mail and deliver our packages. Support the good works of this community to care for the least and the most vulnerable as we are able. Spread joy and share peace at a time when frustration and anxiety are rampant.
And pray. Fervently. Pray for our own needs; for patience, endurance, strength, hope, peace, and whatever else we are going to need to get through these days. Pray, fervently, for those who are afraid, alone, and don’t know where to turn for help. Pray, fervently, for those who are on the front lines of caring for the sick, who are putting their own lives and the lives of their families at risk by doing so. Pray, fervently, for those who have or will soon lose their source of income as the world slows to a near stop. Pray, fervently, for our leaders who are doing their best to chart new courses balance safety and communication.
God is with us. We’re all in this together, thanks be to God, because I couldn’t do it without you.
I received this beautiful prayer last night from Fr. Tom Martin, who received it from his brother, John Martin. It seems that the Rev. Junius Martin, former Rector of Christ Church, continues to bless us even now as he rests in peace. A blessing indeed, passed from generation to generation. See, I told you we’re in this together…
Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,
Fr. Richard Hendrick, OFM
March 13th 2020
Photo Credits: Warning sign, free, via Pixaby.com; ship, free, via Wikimedia; flatten the curve, free, via Wikimedia; nurse, free, via pxfuel.com.