What a beautiful service we had last week! Jerry’s and Dave’s planning and work paid off magnificently. Those of us online were able to see and hear Meighan and Kia and the singers and the speakers. We in the church could see our dear friends on Zoom. Those who planned the service made sure that we could specify our comfort level about touching or being touched, so there were no hurt feelings about not being approached, or anxiety about being approached. Meighan created a new way to serve communion to guarantee extra safety. Singing together is not yet a guaranteed safe activity, but Kia created a way to bring live music back to church. And we didn’t have to leave our distanced friends behind.
So it was a beautiful reunion for many of us, a glimpse back at the way things used to be. And yet...we’re all still in that threshhold state of “What comes next?” We have begun to think now about what things will be like AFTER the pandemic. When we return to Normal. When COVID is finally over.
But too much has already changed. There is no more normal. As Meighan said last week—the gate to the Garden of Eden is closed and locked. Yesterday is gone.
A lot of businesses—small shops or restaurants or other services—haven’t survived, or they have changed dramatically. A lot of people didn’t survive, or were left disabled or impoverished or orphaned. And we are still practicing safety measures: masks, distancing, ventilation, and our colored hug tags.
Remember back, almost two years ago, when we thought this would last just a few weeks? We could endure pretty much anything for a few weeks—a month and a half at most. It’ll be OK.
So those of us who were able to, stayed home, disinfected our groceries, wore gloves and hand sanitizer everywhere, and learned how to use Zoom. But some of us didn’t have access to Zoom. And others had to go out to their jobs, in anxiety or fear: grocery and pharmacy workers, healthcare workers, and other service people.
And then we began to realize that we were going to be in it for a good long while. And we began to transform from people who expected to be inconvenienced for a few weeks, to people living with a long-term catastrophe. We started to understand that we were going to have to change our lives to survive—physically and emotionally. And we began creating survival techniques in a situation that none of us had dealt with before.
Prospect and other churches adapted our worship practices to online formats. Kia and Jerry spent most of their days insuring that our services were as full of music as we were used to. Brian sacrificed his days off for a year and a half to make sure the online services ran smoothly. We all expanded our understanding of communion to include whatever sacred item was in the cupboard or refrigerator on a Sunday morning. The volunteers at Community Lunch adapted to keep its cooks, servers, and guests as safe as possble.
Out in the world, people who could sew turned their homes into factories where they created and gave away hundreds of masks, as stores ran out of cotton fabric and elastic. Elders who longed to touch their children and grandchildren created full-length plastic barriers with built-in sleeves and hung them on clotheslines so they could hug outdoors. Families designed no-touch trick-or-treat machines so little children could have at least that experience. Neighbors in an apartment building on Bainbridge Island sang with each other from their separate balconies. Entire neighborhoods in Italy did the same. Dancers, singers, and other performers stopped waiting for rehearsals to start up again, and began to create art they could perform alone in their homes, or at a safe distance in public places like parks. Teachers learned to work online, although far too many students didn’t have the technology to enable them to succeed in this new world.
But thousands of Americans also experienced the awful grief of being unable to be near dying loved ones. Others were unable to greet newborn relatives. And all of us experienced the loss of the comforting rituals that move our lives forward, as we tried to stay connected to friends and family through Zoom. We celebrated weddings, funerals, graduations, holiday dinners, and other gatherings with the two-dimensional images of people we so much wanted to touch. And, again, there were so many who don’t even have that technology.
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I read recently about how indigenous children around the Salish Sea would be sent off into the forest, alone, to look for spirit companions and helpers who would support them throughout their lives. These quests were actual ordeals. Children who had been constantly surrounded by relatives and friends were suddenly left alone in the woods. They had to test their own survival skills, and they had to fast, sometimes for several days.
A lot of individuals in our late-capitalist culture have tried to find spiritual meaning by going on solitary vision quests, and there is an entire industry that will sell you that experience for a hefty fee. I think they’re going about it wrong, though—even disregarding the fact that someone else’s religion has been turned into a commodity. Here’s why: the indigenous kids who went to the woods lived in large communal houses where they were never separated from people who loved them, and group survival meant taking care of others. The best hunters and fishers and gatherers always brought food to the poor and the sick and the elderly. People watched out for each others’ children. The economy was built around a party called a potlatch, where people gained social status by sharing and giving away their valuables.
So going out alone into the forest was a surprising and shocking experience of solitude, in a culture where that was a rare concept.
In this culture, on the other hand, we are pushed to focus almost exclusively on our individual wants and needs, frightened by a bogeyman called Socialism, and discouraged from sharing because it means we don’t buy enough things for ourselves. Becoming an adult means finding your own place to live and filling it with stuff you’ve bought for it. So going out on a solitary quest for spirituality only worsens the pain we’re trying to heal from. Our vision quests need to be about interdependency and compassion.
Loneliness is epidemic in America. A huge percentage of Americans can identify only one close friend, if that. Loneliness shortens our life expectancy, and makes us vulnerable to physical and emotional illnesses. And so many of us try to soothe that terrible loneliness with shopping, movies and TV, legal and prohibited drugs, food, alcohol, sex, video games, you name it.
And then came the pandemic, and those of us who wanted to help protect ourselves and each other had to retreat into our homes, alone or with our close families. More solitude. More loneliness.
But this added layer of aloneness has motivated many of us to find new ways to reach out to each other. Some households have created “pods” of people with whom we can be less vigilant. Some have sought solace in their gardens or with new animal companions. Some have joined online interest groups, including our own book group. Some have found that a daily phone call to a friend is what gets them through. Others have discovered safe ways to visit those who are chronically alone—chatting in open doorways, walking in parks, sharing lunches on outdoor picnic tables. These are emotional survival skills that can serve also during the “ordinary” loneliness that is epidemic among Americans—especially elders—and they can become part of Prospect’s mission on the other side of the threshold.
And so, when I read about children going out on vision quests, it occurred to me that maybe—maybe—the pandemic is a collective vision quest for the world. It is true that there is a very loud minority of people who fight every effort to stop the spread of the virus. But most humans have taken on this ordeal as part of a world-wide community, for the sake of the most vulnerable among us, as well as for ourselves. In spite of our isolation, we need to remember that we did not go into the forest alone.
The prophet Joel tells us that when we return from exile, when the metaphoric spring rains come to water the seeds we plant, our young people will see visions, and our elders will dream dreams.
What kind of visions and dreams are we bringing with us as we move forward from this exile?
Over a year ago, Prospect had to cut our ties with the project that has been our center for over 50 years: our preschool. The families we were serving had changed, and we were less and less able to meet their needs. And we knew it would be impossible to keep groups of small children and their families safe from the virus. Neither the church nor the preschool had the staff to keep furniture, food, bathrooms, and small hands clean and sanitized. And so, even as we grieved, we ended our long relationship.
And so now Prospect’s vision quest includes wondering what our touchstone mission will be going forward. What will we bring to the larger community? How will we show God’s love in the world? What difference will it make that Prospect exists?
St. Paul told the Corinthians that the Holy Spirit gives us each different gifts, according to our abilities, but all are important and necessary parts of the body of Christ.
We can use this time, as a dreaming and visioning community, to look at our individual gifts and abilities, and discern where we can best offer them to each other and to our larger community. There is so much out there, waiting for our visions and our knowledge and our long practice of taking care of others: climate change, economic justice, racial equity, voting rights, indigenous rights, and more.
What have you learned about yourself, about your survival techniques, about what is truly important to you? How can we use what you and I have learned during this long exile, to help heal our community, our nation, our world? Where would you like to see Prospect put its energy? What draws your passion?
Now and in the coming months, we can think and pray about these questions. And when we finally emerge from this exile, we can bring our dreams and visions forward into the new world we will help create. Amen