On this 4th of July, bitter divisions are markedly and grievously evident among so-called fellow Americans. Is the Covid-19 pandemic intensifying in our country? Or is it actually winding down? Do some of our methods of governing, policing and even voting exacerbate inequality ? Or is the playing field, in this land of opportunity, truly and gloriously level for all Americans?
More than ever, answers to such questions depend upon our perspective. Our perspective, more than ever, influences where we choose to find our information, and what we perceive as fact or fiction. And where we choose to find our information, in turn, reinforces our perspective. If we associate almost exclusively with those whose opinions echo ours, our perspective is further fortified, and our views increasingly justified.
Have you ever held firmly to a belief, certain without a doubt of the righteousness and correctness of your conviction? And then, perhaps in response to an unexpected observation, or a comment by a friend, or a passage in a book, be prompted to rethink that conviction? And in so doing, to watch the sure foundation develop cracks and crumble to dust?
I’m recently been reconsidering some of my long-held viewpoints. Most of us probably hold fast to some beliefs that need to be reevaluated. Some of the “truths” we espouse may be opinions based on flawed premises. An openness to new ideas implies a willingness to rethink. Changing one’s mind may not be evidence of weakness of will or intellect, but instead, of humility that leads to wisdom. We should be wary of those in leadership positions who claim otherwise. Let’s not be led astray by those who actively seek to magnify rather than diminish the divisions between us.
On July 4th, we celebrate our nation’s founding principles of liberty and justice for all. Shouldn’t we ask ourselves this: Do we really want these ideals to apply to everyone? Or only to ourselves? Is it liberty and justice for all? Or liberty and justice for me? Let’s reexamine our perspectives. Let’s be humble as we try to understand those of others. We can work toward unity while honoring diversity. Our country has done this before. We can do it again.
Oh beautiful, for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.
One recent evening, when my husband went to get our dog for his last walk of the day, he found Kiko in his bed by the window, gazing placidly at the fox that typically curls up under the maple tree around dusk.
Kiko and the fox have become accustomed to one another. Lately it’s part of their routine to stare silently at one another as the sun sets. It’s almost as though an invisible thread links each red furry pointy-eared critter to the other, one inside, one outside.
Glancing out another window, my husband spotted a less expected wild visitor. A plump and furry raccoon was intently pawing the ground beneath our bird feeder. Since we moved into our house twenty years ago, this is only our second raccoon spotting. My daughter and I dropped what we were doing and joined my husband to watch with interest as the raccoon staked out the territory around the bird feeder and explored available options. For a while, she* continued to use her little hands to sift the earth for sunflower seeds.
Clearly this method wasn’t yielding enough bounty. She ambled over to the pine tree, climbed up unhurriedly, and perched on the stump of a branch below the feeder. Last year’s dry, brown Christmas wreath, (which I hung on the stump in January when it was still green) almost caused her to lose her footing. After regaining her balance, she took her time to assess the situation. She appeared to consider a leap onto the feeder, but evidently decided against it. Another approach was in order.
Up until this point, the raccoon had appeared to be a slightly clumsy, slow-moving creature, an unlikely athlete. As she grasped the branch from which the feeder hangs, this all changed. Suddenly, she was the picture of fluffy agility, using all four feet to make her way easily, upside down, along the branch.
Once within reach of the feeder, she curled her white hind paws around the branch and suspended herself vertically, in the manner of a trapeze artist at the circus. She grasped the feeder with one front paw and used the other to fish out seed from an opening. She hung on like this for quite some time. The squirrels that routinely attempt to outsmart our supposedly squirrel-proof bird feeder are far less successful.
The raccoon then flipped gracefully and dropped lightly to the ground, where she continued feeding on the seed she’d spilled from the feeder.
And soon she began the process again.
In our focus on the raccoon, we failed to notice that Kiko’s attention had been roused. He’d emerged from his bed and left the room. At first we thought he might have retreated upstairs for the night, as he often does just before it’s time for the last walk. But no. He’d pushed open the kitchen door to the screened porch, plunged through his doggie door and dashed out into the side yard. By the time we arrived, he was at the base of the pine tree, looking up at the raccoon high above him in the branches. See, I can still hunt, he seemed to be saying, as he looked at us, even more condescendingly than usual. And he, like the raccoon, can be surprisingly quick on his feet, should the need arise.
Seven years ago, Kiko had a brief encounter with a raccoon that also ended with the fuzzy masked visitor peering down at him from a tree. (See this post here from November 2013.) I wondered then if that would be the start of more frequent raccoon sightings. It was not. Will it be the case now? We’ve seen the memes promoting the raccoon as the perfect Covid-19 mascot: it’s a mask-wearing hand-washer, and the letters of racoon can be rearranged to spell corona. Our visitor returned the next evening, around the same time, and went through the same feeding process. We haven’t seen her since, but I’ll continue to look for her around dusk.
We could use the distraction. During the past four months, our family has rarely left the house. We’ve had no guests. No friends inside the house. (And therefore we’ve abandoned all but the most minimal efforts toward tidying up. The surrounding clutter encroaches daily. Chaos looms.) It sure would be pleasant to be able to count on visits from such a charming acquaintance. One who abides by the pandemic rules of social distancing, entertains us briefly with acrobatic feats, never expects to come in, and then quietly disappears. Unfortunately, it will be a while before we can expect to enjoy the company of any other kind of visitor.
*I’ve recently realized that I tend to refer to most animals I see in nature with male pronouns. I know our most frequent fox visitor is a male because he lifts his leg to pee. I have no evidence of gender for this raccoon, but I’ve decided to go against my instinct and refer to it as “she.”
Debate, often heated, continues on the subject of if, when and how churches should open during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Such talk is misleading.
If you typically attend a church that now refers to itself as “closed,” you may not really have been attending church at all.
Because churches, the real ones, have never “closed.” While congregations have not been gathering in their accustomed sanctuaries, the true and vital work of the church continues.
Let me speak for my own United Methodist church.
Communal worship has moved online. On the first Sunday of the lockdown, our minister simply delivered her sermon live on Facebook. Thanks to teamwork and tech-savvy volunteers, the quality and richness of our services, now accessible on YouTube from our website, improve week by week. Those lacking computer access may call the church office and listen to a recording of the sermon. Small group studies and fellowship for adults, youth and children continue on Zoom and by phone. Attendance at Church Council, Staff-Parish and other committee meetings has never been higher, thanks to Zoom and the lack of any other place to go. We can’t get together physically with our church family, but we’re looking out for one another. Volunteers quickly mobilized to run essential errands for the elderly and the sick. We exchange emails, texts, phone calls and handwritten notes. We certainly miss welcoming any newcomers who might drop by. It’s therefore crucial that we use our online resources to share the hope and joy that comes with knowing Christ.
Perhaps most importantly, our missions continue. Throughout his ministry, Jesus emphasized the sacred importance of feeding the poor and sharing our material wealth. Before his betrayal and arrest, Jesus told his disciple Simon Peter three times: If you love me, take care of my sheep (John 21:15-17). We’re trying. Our Administrator and Director of Christian Education is at the church every weekday morning, just as she was before the pandemic. Among her duties, she deals with a wide variety of requests for financial assistance. The Covid-19 crisis has made such needs more desperate. Our funds are limited, but we do what we can. We no longer meet in person with the elementary school children we mentored in our Homework Club. But through an ongoing collection, we’re providing some support to their families, many of whom have been adversely affected by the pandemic. And as always, of the money we pledge to the church, a substantial portion goes to both local and global needs.
Following the guidelines established by our bishop, we’re beginning to consider the process, not of “opening,” but of moving toward in-person worship. For the well-being of our congregation and those with whom they interact, we will take things slowly. We will not return to our sanctuary with boasts that God will protect us, or bold declarations of “If God says it’s my time, it’s my time.” When I hear such claims, I think, It’s not only about you. ‘Your time’ may not be your mother’s, or your father’s, or your friend’s time. Our church members do not speak of feeling victimized by our county and state government’s banning of in-person worship during the pandemic. I’ve heard no one in our congregation wondering why churches have been “closed” but grocery and liquor stores remain open. I cannot remember a time when I sat shoulder to shoulder with other patrons for an hour or more, singing and being sung to, while doing my grocery or liquor shopping. A friendly, crowded sanctuary is simply an ideal environment for the exchange of germs.
Later this month, our congregation will bid goodbye to our dear friend and current pastor of eight years without being able to meet together. We will welcome a new minister in the same way. For the next couple of months, at the very least, there will be no after-church receptions, no pot lucks, no hugs or shaking of hands. But we will continue to care for one another. We will continue to feed the sheep. And we will persist in reaching out to those seeking answers to life’s difficult questions during these especially difficult days.
As if the Covid-19 pandemic were not sufficient trial by fire for our nation, the situation has become considerably more painful in the last week. The Memorial Day murder of George Floyd, the most recent in a series of deaths of black Americans at the hands of police or self-deputized white citizens, has served as a tipping point. The brutal death of this unarmed, handcuffed man took place in public view, in daylight, on a Minneapolis street. While one police officer slowly asphyxiated Mr. Floyd, his knee pressing into his neck, three others watched and did nothing, despite pleas from bystanders. And despite the repeated words of Mr. Floyd: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. What atrocities might such police commit in the shadows, when no one is looking, one shudders to imagine. Spurred on by righteous and justifiable anger, protests are occurring from coast to coast. Most are intended as peaceful, yet a large crowd is a volatile, fragile corporate entity, easily hijacked by those of malicious intent. And there are always some small-minded people who seize on a crisis for their own personal gain. Our nation may be more angst-ridden, enraged and polarized than in any period in recent memory.
For nearly twenty years, the United Methodist Church has used this phrase in our outreach material: Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors. Precisely because we love one another, our doors must be temporarily closed, yet our hearts and minds are open, as always. We will not allow the message of God’s grace to shelter quietly, hidden away and gathering dust. Neither will we brandish a Bible, unopened and unread, at best like a symbol, at worst like a weapon, while speaking and acting in an absolutely unchristlike manner. Instead, we will double down on our efforts to extend an invitation to all to open the holy text and learn about the teachings of Jesus, who came to be Immanuel, which means God with us.
And God is with us and among us, even though some say he is absent. Isn’t it up to churches, in these days of closed doors, to open our hearts and minds even more generously to our hurting world? To show what it means to walk humbly with our God and to live in love? To lead the way towards healing and unity?
If you’re looking for a trusted and efficient organization that helps the most vulnerable in this and any crisis, consider donating to the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).100% of your donation will go to your intended mission project. See https://advance.umcor.org/.
Memorial Day has one foot on solemn, hallowed ground and one in a carnival tent. It’s a time for honoring and remembering those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in serving our country. It’s the kickoff to summer fun. It’s flag-draped coffins, wreaths laid on graves, and quiet green fields marked with rows upon rows of neat white stones. It’s barbecues, pool parties, and family reunions. It’s a time to mourn. It’s a time to party. It’s a time to raise a glass in a somber, earnest toast. It’s a time to drink with joyful abandon, perhaps to the point of forgetting.
This Memorial Day is unlike no other. It’s topped with an extra layer of melancholy. The number of American lives lost to Covid-19 approaches, in less than three months, the inauspicious milestone of 100,000. As of publication of this post, the figure stands at 98,034. Among the deceased are those who survived past wars but were no match for this invisible enemy, a shape-shifting virus.
Today, when we honor our war dead, we also pay tribute to those who have lost their battle with a new, confounding foe. We lament the fact that this summer is likely to be short on carefree fun. But it could be empowering to view our actions (and our avoidance of certain actions) as tactical responses in our collective Covid fight. Every time we wear a mask at the grocery, or don’t get together with a big group of friends, don’t travel to visit family, every time we keep plenty of space between us and those we meet, we’re being zealous soldiers. We’re fighting the good fight. It may also help to remember, when we forego an activity that used to give us particular pleasure, that we’re fighting not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones and neighbors.
I’ve been trying to write about the altered state of my family’s life during these strange days of coronavirus isolation, but the right words are hard to find. To say that we’re living through unusual circumstances is an understatement. What makes this time even more extraordinary is the marked dichotomy of human experience. While some of our brothers and sisters are battling the visceral reality of this virus, for most of us, real suffering, and the fight against it, is occurring at a distance.
I’ve been wanting to write about the humorous aspects of the modifications in our daily circumstances. Every day we find some new absurdity that prompts a smile or a laugh. For those of us, like my family, who have the luxury of staying together in our home, it’s far more pleasant not to dwell on the source of all this change. We are doing our part, after all, as we keep vigilant in our isolation, carry on with our respective tasks (which have not disappeared), and find some cheer in the beauty of springtime that surrounds us.
But even if we remain among the fortunate who are spared the pain of confronting this grim reality face-to-face, we should still be aware it.
A powerful picture of trench warfare against Covid-19 is offered by Simone Hannah-Clark, an intensive care nurse in a New York city hospital. Her op-ed in the New York Times on April 3 should be required reading for everyone: An I.C.U. Nurse’s Coronvirus Diary.
According to Ms. Hannah-Clark:
“I’ve started to refer to the time before this as peace time. Because this feels like a war. I grudgingly respect our enemy’s tenacity. Unseen, ruthless, random.”
Each workday for her begins well before dawn and ends well after dark. During the short time she spends at home, she takes care to isolate herself from her family, fearing for their safety. Even her commute to the hospital, which may be the least stressful part of her day, involves risk, in a choice between the Subway and Lyft. Once she begins her shift, the logistics alone–of managing the necessary medical equipment within confined and crowded spaces–while trying to protect herself adequately with perhaps less than adequate P.P.E.–sound overwhelming. And that’s before the intimate, meticulous procedures of patient care even begin. She documents these in moving detail.
Death is a frequent visitor. The only visitor, one might say, since the risk of transmission prevents family members and friends from keeping bedside vigil. Ms. Hannah-Clark writes:
“My first task is to help with post-mortem care on a Covid patient we just lost. We had watched her slowly die over the past few days. We did everything we could. It’s just me and a nursing colleague in the room.
It’s a grim affair. We wrap the patient’s body securely, stroking her brow and wishing her well on her next journey. My colleague removes her jewelry carefully; we know her daughter will want it. I have to collect her belongings because security isn’t allowed to come into the room. It moves me to see her wallet, her planner, her toiletries. Only a week ago she was a person with a future, with plans, with cherry-flavored lip balm.”
I will write about the funny side to coronavirus quarantine. But not yet. Maybe after Easter.
For now, I feel pressed to remember, and to acknowledge, why we’re staying home. May we be grateful for dedicated nurses like Ms. Hannah-Clark, who, bound by duty, refuse, at great personal risk, to stay home. May we remember that, even if we don’t know anyone sick with this disease, or anyone who has lost a loved one from it, there are, indeed, many real victims. And they are people much like us, who, until very recently, had plans and hopes for the future.
This day in the Christian calendar is Maundy Thursday, when we contemplate Jesus’s final night with his disciples. It was on that evening, before he was betrayed, that Jesus washed the feet of his friends. He told them to follow his example, to care for one another, to love one another. Medical workers like Simone Hannah-Clark, no matter their religious affiliation or complete lack thereof, are living out the reality of Jesus’s advice.
Let all of us, as fellow humans, especially during these anxious coronavirus days, try to love one another, not just with words, but with deeds as well.