In the final month we lived in Virginia, alongside the requisite sorting, box-making, and packing, I finished a project that was nearly a decade in the making. The project hadn’t languished because it was particularly difficult or big—it was just one of those projects that lies fallow for awhile until it’s clear that its time has arrived.
The project was a small wall hanging—no more than 2’ x 2’. In early 2011, I had moved to Pittsburgh to begin a Master’s program, taking with me my sewing machine and a stash of fabric as my study-break hobby.
This was not just any fabric, though; it was fabric I had gleaned from my mother’s stash and from fabric she had gleaned from both of my grandmothers, who were both deceased. The fabric was mostly scraps—small bits leftover from yesteryear’s (or yesterdecade’s) projects, likely clothes and quilts. Some pieces were no bigger than a couple inches across. Most were wonky remnants. All had a bit of that musty, mothball grandmother’s-closet smell.
I began taking the scraps and piecing them together, using a technique called “crazy quilting,” where symmetry is not a goal, at least until you finish the square.
Eventually, I had made about 35 squares. Half of them, I pieced together and quilted for my sister. The other half sat in a box for the rest of our time in PA. And then it sat in a box in a basement while we lived in London. And then, still in the same box, it sat in my study while we were in VA.
Years later, at the start of 2019, I resolved to finish what I now called my “Grandmother Project,” to put the final squares together and make a wall hanging for myself.
By Summer 2019, it was still in the box. But as a move loomed in our future, I felt a poke of “quilter’s conscience.” And then, separately, when it seemed clear that my ordination for ministry would be happening before we moved, I felt the critical impetus for following through on my resolution.
I felt this because I linked the possibility of my ordination with my ancestors—particularly ancestral women with whom I shared either genes or spirit.
So, in August and September 2019, I finished piecing the top. I carefully layered the backing, batting, and top together. I then quilted it by hand. Finally, I bound the edges and it was complete. With the ordination service approaching, I requested that “Grandmother Project” be part of the worship visuals as a symbol of gratitude and interconnectedness to those who have “made a way” for my journey.
As I stood facing the congregation that morning, I also stood in front of my handiwork, my grandmothers’ and mother’s fabrics, and I was anointed for ministry. My mother and mother-in-law joined me, draping a vibrant stole around my neck that they had collectively made. It was a sacred intersection of blessings, of standing on hallowed ground with women who had paved the way for me, whether or not they knew it.
Recently, I’ve taken out more of these old scraps from my grandmothers, my own fabric occasionally mixed in. As I cut them into squares for some future project, I think of my grandmothers and I wonder about their lives.
As I’m currently reading My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Path to Mending our Bodies by Resmaa Menakem, at times I reflect on the mystery of my own grandmothers’ hands.
I think about the scars and trauma my ancestors endured, and wonder how much of that lingers in me. I wonder about how my grandmothers thought about race, gender, white privilege, or the land they inhabited. I smile at the question with an unknowable answer: What would they think of their granddaughter-pastor?
In the absence of answers, I keep cutting squares and asking for their blessing and wisdom. I offer my gratitude for them, for their labors in keeping loved ones clothed and warm with all varieties of colors and patterns. And I let their love shape my ministry, as I think now of those who will lead us in the years to come.
This image on my arm has become my symbol of commitment to resisting dehumanization, both my own and others’. She represents our freedom from the lies of systemic oppression that restrain the fullness of life and loving expression.
For me, transitions tend to invite introspection—first at the time of the transition itself, and often again at anniversaries of the original event. These reflections take on multiple forms, such as journaling, personal retreats, or planning rituals with friends. Other times, the reflection is intertwined with embodied expression: cutting off my hair, adding holes to my body, or inking up my skin.
Recently, I crossed a milestone anniversary of a significant transition – one that was, in fact, marked by fresh ink on my right forearm. It is this experience, the art and the personal growth, that I reflect on below.
The chaos felt violent, unnecessary, and soul-deadening. When I finally found a shred of Center, something deep had shifted within me, and I began pondering my first steps out of the swirling mess.
Stepping out of any tumultuous experience is a significant transition, a liminal space to be named and honored. And so, I commissioned an artist-friend to draw a tattoo for me.
The instructions were basic: it should be based on a Celtic tree of life (a symbol that connects with my spirituality); with a nod toward a water-loving tree, such as a weeping willow (connecting to my natal watershed); and, I wanted the full spectrum of color represented.
My friend took these instructions and mocked up a couple of options. I was immediately struck with one where she had intuitively transformed the trunk into a feminine figure, such that the roots became her feet, and her arms and head stretched up to form the bottom branches. This was it. This was the one. The image spoke to what had shifted in me and, in turn, marked my stepping out from the shadows.
Part of what shifted within me, you see, was a new unwillingness to be boxed in. An unwillingness to put my head down, to be veiled in silence, to take up less space. An unwillingness to be complicit in the unconcealed, deliberate stifling of my very essence.
As I was reminded countless times, I had agreed to this. I had initially consented to The Box,* diminishing myself in some vague, perverse form of Gelassenheit. I settled for the self-silencing. I optimistically trusted that this was rooted in something theologically sound and that I would grow to understand it. Instead, I found it was rooted in the tired, old forms of patriarchy and sexism, and every time I mentioned this or stepped out of my box, institutional denial emerged with scapegoating hot on its tail.
At a point, I had enough. (Part of my reflections now, many moons later, include an incredulity that I stayed as long as I did.)
The tattoo, then, was a way of saying, “no more!” – a visible, physical reminder that life is too short to be boxed in for a “greater cause,”** when in reality, The Greater Cause desperately needs our full, flourishing selves.***
Part of my call is not only to believe that I deserve this for myself, but to actively advocate for the flourishing of others. That’s partly where the full spectrum of colors in the tattoo comes in.
This image on my arm has become my symbol of commitment to resisting dehumanization, both my own and others’. She represents our freedom from the lies of systemic oppression that restrain the fullness of life and loving expression.
In flinging wide her arms, the Tree Woman is not only freed from her shackles, she is freed to love and to be loved. Songbirds land in the safety of her weeping branches, and she sings along with them. The life-rich soil on the banks of her stream, she firmly holds in place with a steadfast resolve. Travelers of all sorts find under her canopy a safe haven for rest, arms stretched wide to hold and be held. (She loves to be held as much as she holds.)
In a recent worship planning meeting at Madison Mennonite, our chairperson opened the gathering by sharing the following poem of Hildegard of Bingen. As he read, I saw reflected that while this tattoo is on my arm, it represents the experience and blessing we all need in milestone moments and in their anniversaries. As we find our roots and shake off the shackles that bind us, we are freed to be “encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”
Good people, Most royal greening verdancy, Rooted in the sun, You shine with radiant light, in this circle of earthly existence You shine so finely, it surpasses understanding. God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.
*I was told The Box would grow and change its shape, according to the person inhabiting it.
**A scarcity mentality leads us to accommodate the “greater cause.”
***Becoming our “full, flourishing selves,” does not include the “freedom” to trample on the potential growth of others. It may, in fact, involve the surrendering of certain “privileges or preferences” to enable the thriving of others. In this vision of Freedom, my flourishing is directly tied to your flourishing; if you are chained, then I cannot be free. (…to adapt the quote generally attributed to Lilla Watson.)
The poem, perhaps yet unfinished, has been rolling around for awhile. It speaks of that which keeps us up at night — anxieties, traumatic memories, resentment, anger. There is something about the dark that invites these things to blossom in ways they wouldn’t dare during the day.
Petals unfurling at night, a flower blossoms in the shimmering glow of an ever-full moon.
Stubborn and devious, it will not bloom in broad daylight (no, for there it withers under the stout resistance of one’s heart and mind.)
Instead, this sickly-sweet blossom prefers a still, silent world shadows poor night vision.
Feet, hands frozen as if in a dream can neither pluck it nor flee from it.
A stray cloud passes; the momentary distraction shatters the illusion.
Then, a deep breath, blankets tucked in again. Weary eyes shutter.
The petals collapse in on themselves, defeated for this night.
Most of my creative energy in the last weeks has been directed toward church-related plans and staying present with broader invitations of life. All of this has required a high level of collaboration, which is fantastic and I wouldn’t trade any of it!
But it has been awhile since I’ve written anything “shareable” for the blog. I saw this on a friend’s timeline and I knew it was true for me.
The poem above, perhaps yet unfinished, has been rolling around for awhile. It speaks of that which keeps us up at night — anxieties, traumatic memories, resentment, anger. There is something about the dark that invites these things to blossom in ways they wouldn’t dare during the day. Sometimes there is the grace of a passing cloud, or a new perspective; often there is not.
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.