Just a few moments ago, when I logged on to upload my Easter sermons, I came across this post in my drafts. I began the post last April, and had a working title of “Injustices grow like this virus”. For some reason I don’t recall, I didn’t finish it then. I’m guessing from this incomplete sentence : “As I read or hear about the assaults on people who either are or are presumed to be Chinese” that I wrote in response to one of the stories I heard about Asian people being targeted or something then-President Trump said about the “Chinese virus.” I’ll never know. I’m publishing it today because some of the underlying message seems to hold true still, though where I find myself in terms of any kind of conclusion is a bit different. If you read on, you’ll see where I land today and perhaps it will resonate with you.
April 16, 2020: This morning as I was online praying with my parish and others, it occurred to me that one of the worst things about the corona virus is that it is more than just a breeding ground for Covid-19. As if that disease were not bad enough, this virus has shown itself to be wily, with the capacity to ensnare all manner of things in its path.
It has built into its DNA its own injustices. People fall ill. Many suffer horribly. Many die. This happens alone for so many because it is no longer safe or allowed to attend to a loved one in their illness or as they breathe their last. Relationships end with more loss than any one person should be expected to bear.
Even the still healthy struggle. Health care workers must choose between the patients they care for and their own families. Others have lost or will lose jobs and needed income. Basic necessities like food and toilet paper are scarce, if one can even get to the store. Children are stuck at home without the time with other children they need to grow and thrive.
This dastardly virus causes havoc in everyday life with the wherewithal to continue to do so for God knows how long, seemingly always at least a step ahead of the brilliant minds that study it and the courageous minds that enact the numerous and often changing responses to it. There is no justice in this. No one deserves it.
All of that is bad enough. But it doesn’t stop there.
This virus has a seemingly unmatched in our lifetime ability to sow fear and anxiety across the globe, dismissive of the boundaries of geography and resource that often protect some of us from having to live in these conditions, with these choices. That kind of privilege (which I admittedly hold because of all that accidents of birth and subsequent opportunities that make me who I am today) coupled with all of the fear and anxiety this virus feeds breeds more injustice even as we lament the sadness and loss we face, regardless of those accidents of birth.
Although typically an optimist who believes that given the chance we will do our best to be our best selves – the selves God created us to be – the news of how we behaving in this time gives me pause. I realize daily, it seems, that the anxiety and fear, the separation and loneliness, shed new light on the weaknesses of believing that we are entitled to live our own individual lives as we choose, without regard to the truth that is based in science or any care and consideration for others.
I am struck by how willing we seem to be to defer to our very real feelings of impatience, frustration, and emotional and spiritual exhaustion as we seek to find ways to return to life pre-pandemic. Even though in places such as New Jersey, where I now live and serve God’s people, the rates of infection, hospitalization, and intubation continue to rise to fourth spike levels from a plateau that was at about the same levels as the second major spike (over the summer), there is tremendous pressure from all parts of the community (though not medical professionals, as far as I know) to get back to “normal.” Restaurants, gyms, comedy clubs, and retail stores are opening up. Some churches – though not the Episcopal Diocese of Newark and my favorite, St. Stephen’s in Millburn – are open for business as usual, sometimes with smaller numbers and common sense safety precautions in place, sometimes not so much. This is happening when there is so little, if any, science to support these decisions and a good number of experts saying we need to be patient for a while longer.
I get it, I really do.
I feel cheated every day that I don’t get to gather in-person with the people I have come to love so much at St. Stephen’s. I question every day if I have what it takes to be a pastor in this physically distant, online way, while constantly wondering if any of it feels truly meaningful to those same people. All this while expressing my very real gratitude to those same people for their patience and faithfulness and to the Holy Spirit for those glimpses of grace that I experience when suddenly a new drop of creative juice seems to magically appear just when I need it most. This is a kind of emotional multi-tasking that drains energy at a rate that is hard to fathom.
I miss being able to hop on the train to NYC to see show or just hang out. I miss being able to hop in the car to go see my parents in RI or to my favorite yarn store in MA. These are things I didn’t just think about doing but was doing before March 2020. My plans with my husband about how we would take day trips to get to know NJ, our home for only a little more than a year before Covid, were wiped out. It is so unsettling to not know one’s home after 2 1/2 years.
I worry about traveling to NM in June to officiate my son Kevin’s wedding and then worry some more that Covid will wreak havoc we don’t see coming on the already smaller-than-they-would-have-liked festivities and that my worry about these things could possibly interfere with the joy I feel at officially welcoming my soon-to-be daughter-in-law Alex into the family. This worry is exhausting in and of itself because I’m not usually a chronic worrier. Do I dare hope that I will revert back to my less worried self soon or has this gone on so long that worry is now a familiar state, one of the ways in which I know myself day to day?
I get angry that this dastardly virus already has taken away so much and, more than a year in, insists that we live with uncertainty about what life will look like next week or month or year. Sadness and loss are almost constant companions, threatening to usurp the contentment that has been baseline for more years than I can remember. I find myself having to be more intentional than ever before in tapping into the underlying joy and gratitude that has grounded me for more years than I can remember, perhaps even longer than contentment has been my baseline. I long for the days when I was more aware of joy and gratitude than I was of sadness and loss or anger and frustration or worry.
So I seek the stillness.
I seek the stillness because I know that to be the place in which I best understand who and whose I am, which is the reason for the joy and gratitude in the first place. My awareness that this is also the place that nourishes my faith so that I can invite the Spirit to open me to the grace of God that is so contant and true that not even a global pandemic that feels like it has completely messed with my life cannot mess with my heart. This is the place I find hope. Hope that there will be enough of us willing to remain in this seemingly interminal in-between space of needing to find ways to regain our equilibrium and something that resembles our pre-pandemic lives, while being patient enough to let the science catch up with the ever-changing realities of this virus so that we don’t make foolish and potentially lethal choices out of our exhaustion and need. Hope in the presence of God and the companionship of the Holy Spirit.
Copyright 2021 The Rev. Paula J. Toland