As I write this, we are nearing the end of day 2 of our shelter-in-place order throughout the Bay Area, and it feels like it’s already day 200. I am about to start our Zoom book study on our all-church read of Barbara Brown Taylor’s “An Altar in the World.” This online book study was planned well ahead of any knowledge of needing to socially distance—proof that God sometimes knows what we need before we do.
Time has slowed, thanks to the order to shelter and the news of the day. Ordinary objects, tasks and relationships take on a new cast. This time might remind us of other times in our lives when we have gotten news that changed everything, that brought life into sharp focus, that both shrunk our world immensely to our most beloved and safe people, and exploded our world into a million fragments. We might be feeling unusually alive and grateful—or cranky and scared—or a lot of each. We are all waiting for what is next, but we’re not sure what the “next” is. An explosion of diagnoses and ill people, including those we love? A stricter order to lock down?
The waiting is the hardest part. I was reading these words today from Barbara’s book, and share them with you now, that you might take on the waiting not as something dreadful and disempowering, but as a chosen spiritual practice. The words are eerily apt for the age of coronavirus.
“Waiting is certainly a kind of prayer, especially if you can stand howling, wide-open spaces. Once, between the time my doctor gave me some bad news about my health and the time I was scheduled for surgery to have the bad thing cut out, I found it possible to love my life in ways that had never occurred to me before. I never thought I could value being able to walk around my house and look out all the windows. I never thought of the brickwork on the building where I worked as beautiful before, or the sound of people laughing on the sidewalk outside as welcome signs of life.
I never allowed myself the time to take a bath instead of a shower, or to find out how long the hot water lasted if I were not in a hurry. Waiting, I found speechless intimacy with other people who were living in such wide-open spaces themselves. We lived in a whole different world from those who thought they were fine. We could spend fifteen minutes admiring a rose, a whole hour enjoying a meal. Even if my news had stayed bad instead of getting better, I like to think that these simple pleasures would not have lost their power to console me. They constituted an answer to my prayer for more life, even if that life turned out to be shorter than the one I thought I wanted.
The same thing can happen while you are waiting to learn whether your child will come home, whether your marriage will last, whether the war will end, whether the market will recover. If uncertainties like these are the sort that move people to pray, then that is because they are the ones that remind us how little real sway we have. Our lives are inextricably bound up with the lives of other people. So much depends on things we can never control. A butterfly beats its wings in Beijing, making it impossible to predict the weather in New York.”
Beloved, be very, very gentle with yourself and each other. We’ll be together for worship on Sunday at 10 am—when Jane Arc will preach about the man born blind, and Talyn Llanillo will share a simple spiritual story, and Kit and Carolyn and I will welcome and pray and storytell scripture and welcome the children. And we’ll be together in all kinds of ways until then, socially distanced but not spiritually distanced, dispersed but not despairing (and if you are despairing or ill: reach out, we are here to help).