In these late summer COVID days, the imagery and reality of storms seems ever-present. Several conversations lately have turned toward thunderstorms and the swirls of chaos many find themselves right now. It’s a vulnerable time; we feel exposed to the elements, utterly out of control.
Of the storms in the Bible, my favorite to reflect on is in Job 38, where God speaks to Job from the middle of a whirlwind.
“From out of a storm, the LORD said to Job: Why do you talk so much, when you know so little? Now get ready to face me. Can you answer the questions I ask?” (CEV)
While some might read this theophany and hear an über-powerful God who smites doubters and sufferers alike, I hear in the passage a deep love for all that God has made: a God who birthed the oceans; who embroiders the hills with sunlight; who has storehouses of snow and dew. This is a God who has thought of every detail, arranging the cosmos with an artist’s keen eye. And this is a God with a dry sense of humor, asking questions that direct Job (and us) back to his inevitable mortality and finiteness.
One of the most disorienting aspects of life in this COVID time (perhaps especially for white U.S. folks) is that our illusions of being in control have been shattered. The whirlwind has whipped away the flimsy protections of privilege. This has led to our feelings of vulnerability, to which we all respond in different ways.
The invitation of Job 38 in a time like this is to surrender to God. There is so much we cannot control right now (or ever). To surrender to God is not to be obliterated or made insignificant; it is to be liberated from the illusory self. To surrender is to see that we are but one piece in a beautiful web of the cosmos, intricately created and loved – loved not because we hold it all together, but simply because we are.
In the midst of the storm, the Holy One will meet you. Let Them guide you through the chaos with a Love that is infinite.
Songs featuring storms have themselves been swirling through my mind. Here’s a short playlist.
This essay was originally written for the August 2020 Madison Mennonite Church newsletter.
Lord, have mercy. “Lord, have mercy.” It’s one of those phrases that suits so many situations and can be taken so many different ways. Sometimes we utter it in exasperation, in disbelief or sarcasm, with an eye roll for good measure. Perhaps more often these days, we say it in grief, shock, or surrender. It’s a line for when we are at a loss for words or when words are simply insufficient.
The Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 yells this phrase at the top of her lungs. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented.” Jesus doesn’t answer, but we know that he heard her, for the disciples sidled up to Jesus and urged him to send her away. “She keeps shouting. Her voice is shrill.”
Jesus weighs the situation, doesn’t say she can’t be there, and sort of diplomatically says, “Sorry, can’t help. You’re not in my constituency. Not my responsibility.”
The woman, of course, persists. She jostles forward, using her body to block his forward progress. “Help me, Rabbi.”
Again, with the excuse that the healing salve he has developed only works in certain cases, Jesus denies her access – he doesn’t have enough to spare, and it won’t work for her type.
Yet she remains, unmoving at his feet. “Yes, Lord, yet even my type are healed by a drop of this balm for which we would scour the rubbish heaps at the edge of town.”
Jesus, whether in mock or true surprise, responds, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Her wish, the desire of her heart, in contrast the Pharisees earlier in chapter 15, is pure and life-giving. What comes out of her mouth is the hope of her daughter’s healing. And her daughter is healed instantly.
Healings in the Gospel of Matthew Looking at the Gospel of Matthew as a whole, healings like this are commonplace. Generally, you can separate the healing stories into two themes or categories.
The first category is the smaller of the two. These healing stories are grouped because they’re the ones where Jesus is the proactive actor. There’s Peter’s mother-in-law in ch. 8, who is ill and Jesus goes in to heal her. She does not, in the text, ask for healing and yet receives it. Or there’s the man with a withered hand who Jesus encounters upon entering the synagogue in ch.12. Again, the man does not ask for healing but receives it. The healing of these stories reflects a proactive grace or proactive salvation – these are the people whom Jesus seeks out or whom he seems to just encounter along the way and offers healing.
The second category is the bigger group: healings that occur because people have sought out Jesus. If the first group shows the proactive healings of Jesus, these stories show the responsive grace of Jesus. Certainly, the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 falls in this camp, but this group also includes the crowds who are constantly following Jesus around. Who materialize instantaneously as he walks into towns, or gets off a boat, or comes down a mountain. Many are healed or cured because they have sought out Jesus.
As a whole, the Gospel of Matthew encapsulates both proactive and responsive healings and grace. There are those who seek Jesus out and those whom he encounters along the way, and the end result is the same: healing.
Seeking Jesus Out Given today’s text, I want to take a closer look at those who seek Jesus out. The story of the Canaanite woman connects closely with three other healing stories in Matthew.
Two of them involve two blind men – so four blind men in total – and the third is a father who advocates for his epileptic son. In each of these four stories, the ones-seeking-healing enter the story with the same line: Lord, have mercy! And they all do so with equal gusto and persistence, for they are portrayed as speaking this line, “Lord, have mercy,” while “crying loudly,” or “shouting” or jostling through a crowd. All, inevitably, find healing in Jesus’ response.
But the Canaanite woman’s story diverges here. The first distinction is that while all experience some level of marginalization because of being affected by illness, the Canaanite woman has two additional stigmas. She’s a woman, of course, an unfortunate gender in that context. And the fact that she makes herself known in public through shouting is serious faux pas.
And, she’s Canaanite. The ethnic backgrounds of the others are not mentioned, from which we can infer that the men were Jewish. She’s a woman…from the wrong tribe. So the first divergence is that she should not be there; or, if she’s going to be there, she should know her place and stay in the background.
The other detail that is unique is that she is the only one who meets resistance from Jesus and the disciples when she cries out for mercy. The disciples–silent in the other three stories–openly voice their desire for her to shut up and go away. Not only is her voice not welcome, but they also want her to leave. Jesus also puts up a barrier for healing that he does not construct for the others.
She did nothing different from the others who approached Jesus for healing, crying out, “Lord, have mercy!” Yet she encounters resistance. The relevance of how this still plays out today–even at the highest rungs of social and political power–should not be overlooked.
The “Foreigner” of Isaiah Commentaries pitch a variety of hypotheses on what is happening between the Canaanite woman and Jesus. In drawing in Isaiah 56, my sense is that the Canaanite woman is the example par excellence of the “foreigner” in Isaiah 56, whom God has committed to “gather in.” Her body and her embodiment of covenant faithfulness bridge the good news of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ teaching.
Hear again the words of Isaiah 56:6-7:
And the foreigners who join themselves to me, Ministering to me, Loving the name of YHWH and worshipping me– All who observe the Sabbath and do not profane it, And cling to my Covenant– These I will bring to my holy mountain And make them joyful in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices Will be acceptable on my altar…
The Canaanite woman persistently joins herself to the Son of David, who shares Canaanite blood with her through their common foremothers Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. She ministers to Jesus with her wisdom and tenacity, acknowledging Jesus’ authority, and throws herself at Jesus’ feet like a servant.
She is committed, in her own way, to the law of the Sabbath, setting aside her daily labors to seek restoration, renewal, and healing for those in her care. The desire of her heart is a worthy offering.
She knows that she is one who, while an outcast of Israel, deserves a welcome at the house of prayer. In fact, she will not be kept from it, even if she has to scour the rubbish heaps at the edge of town or sweep up the crumbs from the communion table. I Am Who I Am has promised to gather all those in – the outcasts who seek the Holy One and the ones the Holy One encounters on the way.
Have Mercy, O God For what or for whom do you seek healing? When have you received healing as a gift?
Whether we have sought out Jesus or unexpectedly encountered him on our journeys, our status as foreigners or even imposters will not be a barrier to the welcome table.
As we see others drawn in, perhaps throwing elbows and shouting for mercy, may we not stand in their path, or ask them to be quiet and leave. May we instead step out of the way, for all deserve healing and a place at the table. The Spirit is at work, gathering us to the holy mountain, where there is enough bread and wine for us all.
Prayer of Petition, in preparation for Communion
Have mercy on us, O God, Son of David. If we might but taste the crumbs which fall to the ground, that will be enough to feed our faith, to make us whole. Draw us in, we who were once far off, to your holy mountain, to your house of prayer – not only for our healing, but for the healing of our children, our siblings, our community, for the healing of all nations. Amen.
Featured Image: Bazzi Rahib, Ilyas Basim Khuri. The Canaanite Woman Asks for Healing for Her Daughter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57555 [retrieved August 18, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ilyas_Basim_Khuri_Bazzi_Rahib_-_Jesus_and_the_Canaanite_Woman_-_Walters_W59243A_-_Full_Page.jpg.
The details: L.S. Dugdale, The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom (New York: Harper One, 2020).
The problem and the question: More and more North Americans have been dying poorly. We pursue a seemingly endless array of medical treatments with the hope of a cure, and, in exchange, often sacrifice our quality of life. We are dying alone and with regrets. And we die in fear, untethered from a sense of a bigger purpose. How can we support others’ dying and prepare for our own dying so that death is done “well”?
The thesis: To die well, we must live well.
What this means for Dugdale: Dying well means living with a sense of our finitude. We’re all going to die someday, and it’s best if we deal with that fact while we aren’t facing death head-on. That does not mean we look forward to dying, but that we have judged and arranged our todays (and tomorrows) with an awareness that we cannot do/have it all. We cannot be cured of death.
Dying well requires a connection to community and loved ones. Which is to say that we must be present for others when they are dying (to both support them and to be reminded of our own mortality), and we must be prepared to unashamedly invite others in to our dying processes. Community helps us answer – or, at least admit that we often have – lingering questions about our existence.
Dying well means considering our literal deathbed. The art of dying well is to curate, if you are able, your final days and moments so that you are at “home.” A hospital can be a “home” for various reasons, but Dugdale argues that hospitals often present barriers to dying well. So, thinking through what is important to you is a first step to dying in the bed and company of your heart’s desire.
Dying well requires that we acknowledge our fear of death. It is out of fear of death that we “wage war” on the illnesses that ravage our bodies. This fear is sometimes mistaken for a “desire to live,” though the quality of life one lives when on a third or fourth experimental drug says otherwise. It is natural to be afraid of what we do not know and what we cannot control, but Dugdale writes,“[N]ot all fear compels a person to submit to torturous procedures that are unlikely to help.”*. To die well while afraid is to “walk courageously…toward the terror and sadness.”** To stare back at the fear of death is the only way to die well.
Dying well means attending to the body and the spirit. Dugdale writes of “vandalized shalom,” where bodies, communities, and the world are not as they are meant to be and are affected by decay.*** Yet it is within (broken) community that we find meaning and transformation. And it is within communities of faith, Dugdale suggests, that we find spiritual grounding to ease despair and emptiness.
Finally, dying well entails devoting time—more than one might think—to the rituals surrounding death. While our culture around death has shifted significantly in the recent past, passing on to “professionals” the actions associated with saying our final good byes, Dugdale suggests that what is gained with efficiency does not offset what is lost ritually. Rituals, like preparing the body for burial or funerals, aren’t meant to be efficient, but to be effective markers of significant transition. In the case of death, they are meant to allow us to show love to the deceased, to the bereaved, and to contemplate our own mortality. What would it look like for families and communities to return to holding these rituals, rather than funeral homes? Would it help the living to live (and die) better and to mourn more fully?
Personal reflection: I finished this book on my birthday, a purposeful move…for though birthdays invite us to celebrate our lives and existence, with each passing year, they also mark, if we pay attention, our certain mortality. While I had a blip in my mid-20s where the idea of death filled me with utter sadness, I have largely felt unintimidated by death. I’m certainly not personally eager for it, nor do I wish anyone else an untimely death, but, with Dugdale, I have felt convicted that how we live (not what we have or ultimately what we accomplish) is how we die. And so I have tried to shape my life around priorities, which include faith, community, and no small amount of not-putting-up-with-crap.
Reading The Lost Art of Dying couldn’t have come at a better time–in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of societal upheaval, and in the midst of the earth rebelling against human abuse. Each of these circumstances reminds us of just how interconnected we all are. How your ability to live well relies on my ability to live well. How your ability to die well — without fear, surrounded by loved ones at home — is intricately connected with my ability to die well.
It may seem strange to educate ourselves on dying well, while death feels far off, but as Dugdale suggests, what better time is there? What does it mean for you to live well? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
We are in this for the long haul. The COVID-19 pandemic. And the pandemics of white privilege and systemic racism. Neither will be cured with a single vaccine.
Then there are all of the other pandemics.
Climate Change. Patriarchy. Homophobia. The corrupt and dehumanizing U.S. immigration system. The prison industrial complex. The military industrial complex. Poverty.
The list could go on. It is, in a word, overwhelming.
In these moments, we are called to two things: first, to listen to the voices of those oppressed, follow their lead, and support them wholeheartedly, even if it costs us.
And second, to live faithful to our call as beloved children of God. Fredrick Buechner famously wrote: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
(Notice he didn’t add “and all the places the world is hungry.”)
In your life’s journey, what are you being called to do in this moment? Because there are many good paths to tread, and we need all of our giftedness in this walk toward justice.
None of us has to do it all. We don’t have to do anything perfectly. We will make mistakes. And we must keep walking.
To paraphrase Luke 10:41, ”Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” What is yours to do?
And then … as discerners and practitioners of God’s shalom, we come together to reflect and discern in community—a cycle of action and reflection.
What is the pandemic teaching us about love? This is the third in a series answering this question. See Part 1 and Part 2 here.
The pandemic is teaching us that the love of others is vital; and it is complicated.
Let’s start with the bad news first: COVID-19 is teaching us that the love of others isn’t as easy as it seems.
During an interview aired this week in the Festival of Homiletics, Duke Divinity professor, theologian, and sermon guru Will Willimon firmly stated, “I’m telling my students: ‘There’s one sentence you should not utter in a sermon these days. I don’t say it, no preacher should say it: ‘We’re all in this together.’ Don’t say it; it’s not true.’“*
His reasoning? This pandemic is affecting us all differently, and those with greater privilege are not forced to face it in the same way as those who society marginalizes.
First and foremost, white culture swings heavily toward individualism and personal security. When white folks say, “We’re all in this together,” we often mean it in the sense of, “…only after I’ve taken care of my own, and as long as I don’t have to sacrifice too much.” In this way of thinking, to be together is possible when it’s convenient, advantageous, or at a minimum, a neutral-sum game.
Confession: I said something very similar to “We’re all in this together,” if not those exact words, to Madison Mennonite a week or two after we first started meeting virtually for worship. My intent was good, of course, but Willimon is right that such platitudes are not grounded in reality and render majority-white congregations (and their white leaders) blind to the pandemic’s varying effects.
What I meant to do when I said, “We’re all in this together,” was to inspire us all to live into an attitude of mutual aid. To think of others as equals. To consider how our actions affect others. But, knowing that even I struggle to practice what I preach, I wonder: is it possible to swim against the swollen, relentless river of white, patriarchal imperialism? Is it possible for us to work for a society where we are “all in this together”?
Which brings us to the good news: There are others in the water with us, struggling against the current, resisting the undertow. We just need to look up and out to see that we’re not alone.
Last fall, I borrowed The Book of Joy audiobook from our local library and listened to it as I transitioned from one place of ministry to another. The Book of Joy details a delightful and theologically-provoking conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As the two religious leaders reflected on suffering and what it means in human life, one shared their belief that any suffering we’re experiencing begins to heal when we enter into the suffering of others. In other words, if we remain focused only on our suffering, our pain, and our turmoil, we will find it difficult to ever heal. It’s like continuously picking at or fussing over a flesh wound. And, while we are absorbed with our own hurt, we will find it difficult to sojourn compassionately with others.
This teaching is helpful at the individual level as well as the communal level. As we look up and out, we see that we’re swimming upstream with others, and we can band together in solidarity. But we shouldn’t stop there. Sticking with the aquamarine metaphor, our “schools” also need to look up and out and see that there are many, many other “schools” banding together, resisting the impulse to defend only our interests (lest we flounder…).
In the church, we can do this by linking with other faith communities – informally and formally – expanding our networks of relationships and resources and ultimately, compassion. In an attempt to encourage my church to do just this, a few weeks ago in our virtual worship, I invited congregants (and friends on social media) to name faith communities they wanted us to pray for. The intent was to look up and out, to see that we are not alone in our suffering. That we are not the only ones who are impacted by COVID-19. That our decisions and actions cause ripples beyond us and impact everyone else in the water.**
COVID-19 is teaching us that loving others takes proactive courage. It is teaching us that we cannot lie behind the half-truth that “we’re all in this together,” when we’re unwilling to sacrifice for our siblings in our neighborhoods and around the world. And it’s teaching us that there are others with us in the deluge, fighting to swim against the tide of individualism and self-security, if we just look up and out. Look up and look out.
*Paraphrased, from memory.
**We prayed for 40+ faith communities around the world. Here’s what we prayed: Uniting Spirit, we give you thanks for the living, breathing, beautiful web of churches and faith communities around the world. We pray for them in this time of pandemic, when they and their members may feel like exiles, passing through strange and hostile lands. We hold in the Light of Love these churches: (churches named) For each community named tonight, we pray for hope, creativity, and peace. May they and we be reminded that none of us is alone. Equip and empower us to encourage one another, to empathize with one another, and to learn from one another. We pray in the name of the One who makes us one. Amen.
What is the pandemic teaching us about love? This is the second in a series answering this question. See Part 1 here.
COVID-19 is teaching us that our cultural gold standard for love is measured in … gold. That is the underlying message of those demanding the economy be reopened, at any cost.
Sometimes it helps to draw in popular images to demonstrate a point. Here goes such an attempt.
There’s a scene partway through The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies where, having reclaimed their home and riches under the Lonely Mountain, the leader of the Dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield, is settling into his role as King Under the Mountain. There is vast wealth in his keep, and he is soon overcome with “dragon sickness”– a sort of gold poisoning of the mind, changing him into a caricature of individualistic greed.
Outside his doors, several armies threaten to battle one another – some because they want the riches owed them within the mountain; some because they are bent on total annihilation of the Other (and the riches are a nice spoil.)
Thorin, trapped in his poisoned mind, resists joining the battle–which is the valiant thing, here–and forbids his company to unite with their kin outside the mountain. All he can think about is his gold and protecting his gold.
One of his company, the dwarf Dwalin, comes to speak to him, trying to persuade him to be the courageous leader they need him to be. Thorin has none of it. The gold is of more importance: “There are halls beneath halls in this mountain. Places we can fortify…We must move the gold further underground, for safety.”
Dwalin, incredulous, responds, “Dale is surrounded. They’re being slaughtered, Thorin.”
Sneering, Thorin replies, “Many die in war. Life is cheap. But a treasure such as this cannot be counted in lives lost. It is worth all the blood we can spend.“
The parallels between this exchange and our present commentary on the worth of life are unmistakable. Present-day leaders, channeling their inner, greed-sickened Thorin, are figuratively saying, “Many die in pandemics. Life is cheap. But reopening the economy cannot be counted in lives lost. It is worth all the blood we can spend.”
In other words, our economy is hungry for lives and must be sated. The lives of “essential” workers and persons of color are plentiful and expendable. They are the first to be sold on the COVID-19 auction block, enslaved and sentenced to a meaningless death for the sake of amassing wealth for a few. The commitment to protecting personal wealth, at the expense of all else and everyone else, is “worth” whatever it takes.
Have you noticed? The ones who want the status quo back are those who benefitted most from the way things were.* The ones who prefer to let others fight the battles, while they slink further into their cavernous mountains of gold, waiting for danger to pass. The ones who command the labor in our modern day Plantation Complex.**
We live in a culture where the love of money trumps the love of life. The pandemic is teaching us about the corrupting love of gold.
When it comes to the economy, we know many are itching (or violently scratching) to get back to work.
In my line of work, I can imagine some churches, who rely heavily on the literal passing of the offering plate, are similarly itching to open up their doors, in part to be able to pay mortgages and salaries again. In both the sacred and secular economies, the overarching question is, “But at what cost?”
In this post-Easter season, the Revised Common Lectionary includes a reading each week from the book of Acts. The early church, too, had to contend with a similar question, “What is the financial cost of faithfulness?” There are some rather “striking” stories of gold poisoning, if you will, where the love of money leads to one’s demise. There are also incredible stories of redistributed wealth and economic equality amongst members—where a material cost to the individual (i.e. their money) is transformed into spiritual wealth for the community. (One commentator called this the “golden age” of the church.)
The financial cost of faithfulness need not result in ridding oneself of all material wealth for the sake of avoiding gold-poisoning, though that could be argued. Money, at least in the early church, was used as a means of transforming society. How it was used, and the core values that shape its use, was what mattered more. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages his followers to reconsider the purpose of “treasure.” Is it used to show off, having excess when others are starving? Is it used to push others into poverty? Such uses of wealth are counter to the good news, for “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If your core treasures are based on Love, then drawing lines about money (e.g. “How much is too much?”) will never become a question.
In this COVID-19 time, and really, in all times of unchecked consumerism, the love of gold demands the cheapening of life. And we must all answer, “At what cost to our souls?”
*To be fair, there are also those who are pushing for the reopening of the economy not because they will personally, materially benefit as much as those in power, but because they fear the loss of privileged identity if patriarchy and white supremacy do not maintain a firm grasp on the economy. These folks, who are far more numerous than the powerful few, are beholden to the gold-sickness even though they will likely never share in the treasure; they are the dwarven miners working for the King.
**The “Atlantic Plantation Complex” is a term I first heard used by Christy Clark-Pujara in Justified Anger’s African-American History Course, 2/3/2020. It’s meant to encapsulate the intricate, widespread, and insidious nature of plantations – an “unprecedented international economic system of labor management, capital and investment.”
Check back in next week for Love in the Time of COVID, Part 3: Others.
What is the pandemic teaching us about love? This is the first of a series answering this question.
Liminal spaces shape how we love.
A liminal space can be defined in many ways. I tend to think of these thin moments as spaces where time shifts, often feeling slower and somehow more potent (if time can have potency.) A previous pace or cadence changes suddenly and dramatically; we cannot keep rhythm the way we had before. Routines are thrown off. Our sense of direction spins askew. Our bodies become more sensitive to light, wind, and sound – to the beauty and pain of the world around us. We feel deeply our vulnerability.
Often, we experience liminal seasons on a personal level. We can see our lives changing dramatically as we navigate transitions of every sort.
This pandemic, though, has thrown us all—the world wide web of humanity—into a liminal season together, and, for once, we can’t ignore it.*
While there’s no instant, obvious connection between liminal spaces and love – i.e. one can live in a liminal time and not think about love—when we look at love through a liminal lens, at least one thing appears:
In thin spaces, what feels urgent changes.
When face-to-face with the reality that our existence, or the existence of another, is really quite fragile, new impulses emerge. Now, it’s possible that harmful impulses emerge, like during the Bubonic Plague in Europe, when some took the opportunity to raid homes and pillage the stores of those recently deceased.
But let’s imagine that another, less individualistic or protectionist way is possible. Let’s imagine that in the face of fear, humans willingly lean toward communal thriving and life-giving actions. In the time of COVID-19, the impulse we are called to nurture is expressing the most critical, heartfelt affirmations with an urgency and authenticity that we too often brush aside in “normal” times. What is urgent is to share our love and appreciation while we still can.
Here’s where I’m coming from: As followers of Christ, I believe we are called to live in a relatively permanent state of liminality—the already, and the not yet. We must strive to move along the edge, vulnerable and open to transformation and suffering. We must come to terms with our need for others in order to thrive.
So, I suggest that in this COVID time, Love is calling us to stay—to remain in the thin space. It is here where we feel the impulse to reach out, to practice gratitude, and to practice love…not just while we have time, but always.
* Global liminal seasons probably happen more frequently than we think, though some of us (in the Global North, for example) are typically able to maneuver out of the discomfort more readily…I am speaking out of the North American context as a white woman. A child of privilege and power. I have avoided many global liminal seasons.
Image: Linville Creek, 2019, Valerie Showalter
Check back in next week for Love in the Time of COVID, Part 2: Gold.
Though I am a professed ecofeminist, I’ll admit I missed most of the reminders that Earth Day was coming up . . . There are so many other good things and hard things in our world right now, and they are all valiantly attempting to regain our attention by piercing through the covid-haze.
Yet what I haven’t missed are the clear reminders of how much human beings need one another in these days of social distancing. Articles, posts, and the plethora of friend-and-family Zoom calls are encouraging connections, antidotes to the strain on our mental and spiritual health. Now, on Earth Day, I wonder: can humans extend this awareness to how much we need the Earth?
Over the last month or two, I’ve been savoring Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plantsby Robin Wall Kimmerer. The book reads like a devotional, each chapter offering enough profound thought for a few days. And Kimmerer invites the reader, sometimes bluntly and sometimes gently, to root deeply in the land, to see our relationship with the land as one of reciprocity, and to see the land’s necessary role in our communal healing and well-being.
My partner, dog, and I moved partway across the country six months ago for me to begin ministering at Madison Mennonite. I was just getting into my groove and starting to send down roots when COVID-19 hit. As I read Braiding Sweetgrass, I have felt keenly just how shallow my roots here are, which makes sense – we’ve just been transplanted into Wisconsin soil. And while I feel solid connections with the humans of my church and neighborhood, I’m still searching on this Earth Day for a connection with the land.
Kimmerer notes that white Americans have a sort of “pathology of homelessness.” We lack a sense of being rooted here (in the U.S.) and to the land, as if we have some subconscious nostalgia for the “old world.” Like our forebears, we live as though we have “one foot on the shore, one foot on the boat” – neither here nor there, forever restless, discontented, and with insatiable needs that come with our roots being shallow. She writes, “For the sake of the people and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place. But can Americans, as a nation of immigrants, learn to live here as if we were staying?”*
Diana Butler Bass, in Grounded: Finding God in the World, notes that she believes that some of our restlessness and rootless-ness comes from our deficiency of knowing the stories of our ancestors. Our realities are bound only to that which we know and have experienced ourselves; white folks live with little thought of our history—the way it has formed (and malformed) us—and even less thought of a future beyond us. We’ve become, as Bass writes, “nomads in time,” untethered from a bigger purpose or identity.**
These deficiencies and pathologies impact both our spiritual rootedness and our relationship with the land and other living things. This isn’t breaking news; we’ve long known of humanity’s betrayal—its violations—of the land’s trust and love. The stories fill our sacred texts and our history books.
Still, the earth gives and gives and gives, like a mother. Humans have chosen one day, Earth Day, to remember, to say thanks, to offer some ceremonial nod as a show of reciprocity. It’s hard to believe this is sufficient for truly and deeply honoring the source of all life – the Earth, which is also the Body of Christ.***
Kimmerer would suggest that the invitation of the land (and I would add, the invitation of the Body of Christ) is to “become indigenous” to the land, fully engaging and rooting our souls into the earth. And not because we want to consume it or profit from it, but because we want to honor it in the same way it honors us. The land needs us to root, to make a home on it –that is core to the meaning of reciprocity.
“To become indigenous is to grow the circle of healing to include all of Creation,” Kimmerer says.**** What does it mean for you, for us, to become indigenous to the places we call home? How can we sink our roots deep into the humus, recognizing that we do so not just to be fed, but so that we can participate in a reciprocal relationship with the land and other life?
May this Earth Day be the first of many holy days in which I and we put both feet firmly on the soil of our gardens, rooting with love and mutuality on the earth we call home.
*Kimmerer, 207 **Bass, 141. ***This idea has been developed elsewhere by women theologians of the Global South, and perhaps will make its way into a future post. ****Kimmerer, 212.
A long time ago (mid-2000s), in a galaxy far, far away (Harrisonburg, VA), I was approaching college graduation. As a part of my senior capstone course, our sociology professor took us across the city to the Other University (James Madison University) for a lecture.
I remember two main things from that lecture (which is saying something…): first, the presenter was Johan Galtung, a world-renowned sociologist, “principle founder of peace and justice studies”; second, he was known for making significant socio-political predictions, including predicting the fall of the Soviet Union. In the lecture I attended, Galtun predicted that by 2020, the U.S. empire would collapse, and we would cease being the most powerful nation in the world. (In the lecture, he also discussed various other nations or groups that might or might not assume world dominance, and while that’s worth talking about, that’s not the focus of this post or my thinking.)
Obviously, Galtung’s message resonated with me and my Anabaptist skepticism about imperial power and exploitative economic structures. With recent elections, including the 2016 presidential election, these predictions seemed to be coming true as social and political forces seemed to be ballooning, dividing the social fabric of the country. And then came the global, life-shaping, structure-rattling, humanity-testing experiences of COVID-19 (with no end in sight). These emerging realities tapped into the memory of the lecture, and I am left feeling both great pain and great hope.
Part 2: Nothing New Under the Sun
Many of you may have read this article by Julio Vincent Gambuto on “preparing to be gaslighted” as the world is desperate to “return to normal.” (Gambuto defines gaslighting as, “manipulation into doubting your own sanity.” It’s a subtle form of grooming, often with the intent to have control over another person without their realizing it.) I thought the article was powerful and persuasive, and I agree wholeheartedly that we should resist the temptation to forget–or be convinced to forget–what we have seen in these strange days of late, in order to return to “comfortable” old norms and ways of being…where we sacrifice control for perceived comfort.
But isn’t part of what we’re seeing right now the reality that we’ve already been gaslighted? And when I say “we,” I mean mostly white folks. And maybe especially, white women. Following the 2016 election, vast numbers of white moderates and white folks on the left were astounded at the results, and the collective rage was palpable. Suddenly white folks had to face the fact that white supremacist patriarchy was truly alive and well, that capitalism was not benefitting the masses, that our communities were still segregated and divided. The gaslighting isn’t going to start now for the first time, it will simply be restarted.
I can’t deny that there is a significant part of me that celebrates the crumbling of the U.S. Empire. This celebration-of-sorts comes with the full prior knowledge that the pain of the crumbling will be borne by the very same backs upon which the Empire built itself through terror and violence: People of Color, under-developed urban and rural communities, and the Earth itself. Meanwhile, those who have benefitted from and perpetuated the vast inequalities inherent in the empire will be suffered and walk away largely unscathed.
Part 3: Why I Still Hope
A friend and I were recently discussing ‘survival of the fittest,’ and how it is that Homo sapiens exist, while many other human species went extinct. On the one hand, there is ‘power over’ and ‘aggression’ (e.g. Homo sapiens may have wiped out Neanderthals because we were more violent). On the other hand, we have ‘altruism,’ ‘cooperation,’ and the like that allowed communities to survive through collaboration. The human psyche, I would argue, thrives in the second type of community, and in full disclosure (because I am a pastor, after all), aligns with my understanding of Jesus’ teachings of loving our neighbors.
So, in a time where some are turning to Nationalism and Isolationism out of fear, still trapped in a paradigm of Individualism and Social Darwinism, I am hopeful because of what I see all around me.I celebrate the way our communities are suddenly collaborating more effectively. I celebrate the way our communities are becoming more creative in responding to the needs of one another. I celebrate the resiliency that communities are building to weather all sorts of things for the future. I celebrate that more white folks are waking up to the horrendous inequalities experienced by our siblings of color. I also celebrate that as the Empire falls, the Earth and its other inhabitants are rebounding and taking their own collective deep breath.
My hope lies in our choice to respond to this global, normative-rupturing event out of Love and Hope rather than fear. We can choose to build—not destroy—our capacity to collaborate and communicate locally, nationally, and internationally. To strengthen and support grassroots, resilient structures and organizations rather than top-down corporations. To put our resources into infrastructure that supports human flourishing rather than weapons of human destruction. To put our hope in truer democracies rather than more powerful figureheads. To live as though the kin-dom of God was possible. Here and now.
Where the Empire crumbles, the Collective can rise. Galtung’s prediction may have sounded a doomsday death knell for those who rely on the subjugation and oppression of others in order to “survive;” to those who want to see the thriving of the nations and of the earth, it was a beacon of hope.
The last few weeks, I and other church leaders around the globe have been scrambling to answer the question: In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, can we still celebrate Easter on April 12? If so, can we also celebrate Eucharist?
I’ve heard varying responses from colleagues — some want to wait to celebrate Easter fully until their churches can meet in person again. Others are going ahead with both Easter and the Eucharist. Thankfully, I work and worship in a denomination that, for better or worse, allows congregations to discern for themselves how to answer questions like these.
Disclaimer: I’ve felt from the start that we’re going to need to celebrate Easter, regardless of the pandemic. And celebrating Eucharist is a critical part of celebrating Easter. So, I set my sights on Madison Mennonite celebrating Easter and Eucharist, however much we could, on April 12. But I continued to ponder this dilemma, wondering if our lives are too fundamentally altered by social distancing and isolating to fully enter into the Easter story. Do we miss the meaning of Eucharist if we are physically separated?
So I sat down and re-read the gospel text for Sunday. There were some hints there that pointed to, “yes, we can celebrate Easter and Eucharist.”* Easter is, among many things, God’s defeat over death and violence. We can still celebrate that fully, even in our virtual gatherings. But Eucharist? For that, I read a bit further and was finally convinced that the chaos that led the disciples to shelter-in-place mirrors the chaos of our own pandemic quarantines–chaos into which Christ still shows up. What’s more, our current reality could actually lend itself to a deeper, transformational understanding of the Eucharist than we’ve known before.
In John 20:19-23, we read that Jesus, in his resurrected power, is not deterred by locked doors. The doors, whether locked because of fear or because of quarantines, are no match for the impulse of the resurrection. John writes in 20:19-20, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
Even when our doors are shut tight, whether from fear or out of love for our neighbors, Christ shows up where we are at and extends his peace to us. This undeniably points us to the “yes” of celebrating Easter and Eucharist together. At Madison Mennonite, we already celebrate an open table, proclaiming that the thanksgiving feast is for all who want to draw near to Christ. Now, in the resurrection, when Christ draws near to us, isolated though we are, should we refuse him and deny his presence? Ask him if he didn’t see the sign to “keep out”? Just as we resist policing the Eucharist, we proclaim, even in these strange times, that the Table is not made holy by the building we celebrate it in, nor that the Table itself is singular and particular. Yes, it is more joyous to celebrate Eucharist in the company of others, and we will do this, as far as it is possible, on Easter at Madison Mennonite; yet this Sunday, instead of gathering around one table in our sanctuary, I celebrate that every table in the homes of Madison Mennonites will become an altar, a testament to the God whose shalom-filled love can be found anywhere.
“Where two or three are gathered” in Christ’s name includes our virtual gatherings where folks meet around screens and fumble to mute and unmute. It includes our messy kitchen tables with juice splatters and cracker crumbs. It includes all of creation, springing alive and singing new songs. Thanks be to God!
*The earlier readings of John 20:1-18 shore up the argument of this post. First, there is, of course, the confusion and disorientation of the empty tomb. While we don’t typically equate our church sanctuaries with the tomb, this year is different. As many have already noted, to gather in-person in our churches on Easter could bring about unfortunate, heartbreaking, and unnecessary death. As hard and confusing as it is to not hold Easter in our beloved sanctuaries, this is the decision that leads to life — and, potentially, to new revelations.
Second, having seen the empty tomb, the “disciples returned to their homes.” (John 20:10) Like the disciples of John’s gospel, we will largely celebrate Easter this year at home, without the usual pleasures of family or community gatherings. Many of us will need to “wait” to understand what it means for Christ to be resurrected — both as we wait to celebrate being the Body of Christ together again and more broadly, as we encounter Jesus at different times in our lives and through various means.
Third, like Mary Magdalene, we are invited to remain present to the disorientation of the empty tomb, listening for the voice of the Gardener. I am struck again and again at the intimacy of the moments in John where Jesus speaks one-on-one with the women who love him. Perhaps this year, the invitation is to listen for the way the Gardener speaks to each one of us, unmediated by priests, pastors, or liturgists. In the Anabaptist tradition, we profess to believe that, through the Spirit, all are united directly with Christ and do not need a mediator. Can we trust this year that Christ speaks to us, personally if we stay present to listen?