In a meeting with one of my clergy groups this week, we talked a lot about the “both-and-ness” of the times we’re living in.
The number of Covid cases in our country has topped 300,000. There have been 8,400 deaths. The need for ventilators and Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare workers is critical. (Many thanks to those of you who are sewing masks!) At least ten million people have lost their jobs. The economy is taking a nose-dive. The most basic human activity–meeting together for work, or play, or worship–is gone. These are, indeed, the worst of times.
And, yet. They’re also the best of times. It’s like the whole world has been given a Sabbath. We’re told to stay home, get plenty of rest, spend time with our families.
We aren’t able to meet in person, but Zoom is giving us the chance to stay connected. I know it’s not the same as being together in person, but there are some real gifts of Zoom meetings…like, there’s no smell-o-vision on Zoom! Nobody cares if we don’t shower every day. Seriously, I’ve heard from many of you how grateful you are that we can meet.
(Photo credit: Bev Reddick)
And Spring is here! One of my colleagues on Thursday said, “I keep feeling awful…then I go outside and Spring is here!” Yes! Spring is here. And it’s healing places inside us.
That’s another huge gift of the pandemic protocols–Earth is experiencing tremendous healing right now…and not just from lack of daily showering. I’m doing my part for the world’s water supply. “Scientists have seen how quickly the climate, and nature far and wide, is already revitalizing and recovering from human climate change damage.”
Yes, these are the worst of times and the best of times. Inhabiting both times simultaneously is uncomfortable. Yet, that is our reality right now. In this time of pandemic, we’re having to live with both death and hope.
That pretty much describes the Palm Sunday story. Like Jesus was mounted on both a donkey and a colt, the Palm Sunday story saddles us up to both death and hope.
Last week, we got a glimpse of the death part. Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, becomes ill. When Jesus proposes going to see Lazarus, his disciples say, “Whoa! There are people in Jerusalem who want to kill you! Why do you want to go there?” When he sees that Jesus is determined to go, Thomas says, “Let us go and die with him.”
By the time they arrive, Lazarus is dead. Jesus raises Lazarus…which spawns hope. But death is still very much present.
So, when Jesus hops on the donkey and the colt, all this death hops on with him. The narrative has been leading him to Jerusalem, which for him, means death. Death is real. Things have been happening that can’t be undone. Curves don’t flatten magically by themselves.
And yet, co-existing with the death reality in this story is the hopeful reality demonstrated by all the people gathered to see Jesus enter Jerusalem. He had done so much for them. He had given so much to them. He had healed so much in them.
Because of all he’d said and done, he’d become the people’s savior, their sovereign. Their gratitude for who he was and everything he’d done for them poured out. It was their gratitude that compelled them to throw down the cloaks and to cut branches from nearby trees to make a way for their Sovereign.
Death and hope…both drive the Palm Sunday narrative. Death is all around. Jesus has been telling the disciples for several chapters of Matthew that he will die in Jerusalem. But hope is there, too…in the heartfelt joy being expressed by the people for their savior. If we are to take this Palm Study story seriously, we have to embrace both the death and the hope.
If we are to take the times in which we’re living seriously, we’ll also have to embrace both the death and the hope. It’s easy to see death as the only reality guiding the pandemic, especially when the numbers keep going up so fast. And yet, hope is just as real in these worst/ best times. We see that in the ways people are working together and helping each other.
What is needed in these difficult times, what is needed if we are to emerge from this experience stronger and more whole, is to be fully present to both realities: death and hope.
So, how do we do that? How can we be fully present to death and to hope?
I’m sure there are lots of ways. We can watch the news, but not too much. We can spend time on Facebook, but not too much. We can clean our houses, but not too much.
We can pray for the dead and dying…and for the loved ones they’re leaving behind, like our own Carol A, who lost her brother, Rev. Dr. Allen Janssen, to Covid on Friday night. We can offer help, like sewing face masks, or contributing to the Battery Park food mission. We can be brave and learn how to use Zoom, so we can attend the gatherings we’re having there.
When I think about holding both death and hope together in our minds and hearts, the first thing that comes to mind is last Thursday’s deacons meeting.
Here’s how it went. We spent the first ten minutes just trying to get everybody fully present to the meeting. We’d hear people’s voices, but not see their faces. Then we’d see people’s face, but not hear their voices. Then poor lighting made some people appear like the blob in that old science fiction movie.
Once we got settled in, we started checking-in, just to see how everyone was. We learned that Carol A wouldn’t attend the meeting because her family was having to decide whether or not to take her brother off life-support. We also heard about significant restrictions some people are under in their communities. We shared feelings of isolation and frustration. At the beginning of the meeting, we opened ourselves to the reality of death in the pandemic.
As the meeting continued, we shared other things…what folks had learned from checking in with their flocks. What folks had learned from their flocks about connecting with worship online. How we might create more groups in the church so that more people can get involved and stay connected with the FCUCC community.
By the end, we got a little punchy. That’s when the laughter started. Soft snickers soon turned into deep belly laughs. Our tears had turned to joy! We had created room for both death and hope. I’m beginning to think it was making room for death that made it possible to experience joy and hopefulness.
I’m also convinced that it was our togetherness that made the difference. Our togetherness made it possible to face the reality of the death all around us. Our togetherness made it possible to give ourselves over to silly joy. Our togetherness on Thursday afternoon planted and nurtured seeds of hope within us.
How can we be fully present to both death and hope in these worst/best times? There are many ways. The most effective ways of doing it, though–if Thursday’s deacons meeting is any indication–involve community. How will we muster the strength to experience fully this pandemic, all the death AND all the hope? We’ll do it by finding companions for the journey.
We sang this next hymn at Wednesday’s prayer service. Allen and I also had it sung at our wedding. It speaks directly to what is most important in a community.