It was a wise and holy person who preached that this time was a gift, a way to look at how we practice, what made us sad about the disruption, and feeling abandoned in our communal life, and the loss of the Eucharist in our practice. I recognize the loss, the hunger, the sadness, and the inestimable value of that which the Christ had given us in the Body and Blood. But, perhaps, it took taking the familiar away to know what we do in a new and deeper way.
Thinking about the changes, I was reminded of the Roaring 20s with its glitz and financial crash, and even more so of Berlin in the 30s with its cabarets, sexual exploitation and the rise of dictators. A Cabaret culture. We live in one now. Day and night loud music, weeklong rock concerts, celebrity of the week, TV shows with beautiful youth playing manufactured reality games. Disposable trending fashions and styles. Harmless? So it would seem. Until the music stops. Until the wine bars with $50 glasses of wine for urban executives close. The merry-go-round slows to a stop, groaning and creaking. The Cabaret culture stops. Closed for the plague. I also remember a childhood with ration books for food. And the return of people with numbers tattooed on their arms. And stories about the screech of buzz bombs (V1 rockets) over London. By seven, in boarding school, I had barely survived measles and meningitis. Reality descends on this generation.
Now the churches are closed. And every parish has jumped on board to stream, Zoom, Hangout, or whatever. Eucharists in empty Churches. Morning and Evening Prayer to congregations that may not know what that is all about. We are bombarded with messages pouring out not to be afraid or lonely, while implying that their flock is alone and lonely. And helpless. A message of compassion, yes. But also, you can’t do without me. So much for faith. So much for all those expensive training conferences and manuals to teach formation. Don’t we know that the Body is more than crowding people in a room. Nor are 24/7 calls to all our acquaintances a cure for being lonely. Only God is. We are never alone. The lessons come hard and fast.
Most of us are doing fine, learning to live with uncertainty. I feel content. Attentive to others’ needs, but not feeling lonely or abandoned. I have enough to eat, my cats, the Prayer Book, Scripture, and a library full of books. My neighbors keep an eye on each other in a low-key and unstressed way. I even use social media some.
Some people, yes, feel the loneliness, the fear of the unknown. And for some who have emotional problems, this extra stress has increased their discomfort. But many in the U.S. have lived a life of presumed security. And some are preaching fear, wringing their hands, wanting their security blanket back. Just being “human”, they say, but not Christian. As Christians should we not be living in faith, accepting fear and anxiety as part of the suffering of life, calling on Jesus for ease and comfort. I began to FB post in response with a “Keep Calm and Carry On” message. And I got pushback, some very angry, from those who didn’t care for the notion that we might be fine – yes, in lockdown, with financial problems, with demanding children who couldn’t manage to amuse themselves, with death and illness. But God hadn’t left us. We are a saved people. Wasn’t that worth something? But they fired back that Sunday Eucharist had been taken away from them and they resented it. They needed their community, moaning like high school seniors being denied senior prom. What happens in war time, I asked? In fire? In flood? Had we not become a culture of glitz, shallow glamour, of shiny fake promises of instant gratification which wear off in a matter of hours? A society hiding death, expecting miracle cures for everything from cancer to wrinkles? Even in religion.
And the plague has come. People are dying. And that is terrifying. But that does not give us license to turn our lives into our own reality show. Most of us are mandated to stay in place unless we are in health care or vital services, so we can’t do much. Is that what is making us uneasy, the lack of control, the lack of ability act? The feeling of helplessness? Can’t we do anything to gratify our desire to be more useful, busy, even self-important?
Today, in Mark 9:30-41, the disciples were quarreling when on the road. When they settled into a house, Jesus asked them what they had been quarreling about. They answered, “Who will be first. Who is most important to you. Who gets the best cut at the banquet, the nicest robe, and greatest privilege. Who gets the gold star for being the busiest helper.” How long had they been with their Teacher and they were still elbowing each other for position. Hoarding his favor like toilet paper from Costco. We know Jesus’ response. He gathers up a small child into his arms, teaching that whomever wants to be first, must be last, and a servant to all. As was he. But that didn’t seem to penetrate the minds of his closest followers, those who, like us, needed repeated reminding. But Jesus is clear. Whoever welcomes such as this unimportant child not only welcomes him but the one who sent him. He, who is the living embodiment of God, places himself below all others. He who is our Eucharist. He who is a gift, not a possession. Are we being like that child in his arms, in his love, his warmth, his comfort? Isn’t that enough for now? Not having the Eucharist and the physical gathering of the people was our practice, but not now. This can be our test, our chance to learn, and a time of great grace, if we let it. An offer to be a vulnerable child of our Abba, safe in his arms. Frankly, it would be easier for me to put in 72 hour shifts to serve, as I have done in school and Holy Week, but that isn’t what was given to me.
If your faith, or inclination for solitude, is your gift, use it to be a pillar of strength and stability. Whenever demons snap at your heels, honestly confess your fears – loneliness, helplessness, whatever they be – directly to God, and accept his love. Self-examination is not a group process. Only God knows you well enough to guide you without bias or blame. Pray for those in need – the sick, the poor, the homeless. And for those who find that the very thought of silence scares them, remove your ear buds, turn off the TV or computer, and take some time to let yourself be quiet. Not a program of contemplation with a stopwatch. Time to let God in, if he wills it. Let the anxiety fade away. Don’t get caught up in endless video meetings. The Church will recover without them. Virtually attend a familiar service or two, if you wish. And don’t turn the Eucharist into another painted idol. It is a gift and will be again. Stay safe. Pray for the sick, the health workers, and the research scientists. Read a book. Pet the cat/dog. Have a cup of tea. And always, give thanks to God, especially now. The Feast of the Annunciation was last week. Mary was afraid. But she didn’t complain or have a meltdown. Mary said yes. And accepted the will of God. Just days from Holy Week, that is something to think about. Be not afraid.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.