March 15: “Comfort, Consent and Control” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
It’s a boomer thing, I guess, but some of you here may be old enough to recall when there were LP vinyl records of early Bill Cosby comedy routines. One them was an imagined conversation between God and Noah, in which Noah was reluctant to drop his normal occupations and follow the instructions for building an ark. God’s repeated response to his objections became what we would today call a cultural meme, remember? “How long can you tread water?” It was used to remind the hearers of various forces in the world larger than themselves, that would have to be dealt with one way or another. It feels rather like that now, doesn’t it? Even as the rain begins to fall, we are both scrambling to assemble what we can of an ark, and calculating how long we may be able to tread water.
There is no way around it; this is scary, and confusing, and we are going to be profoundly more lonely and sad before it’s over. Business as usual is no longer a possibility, and even when we reach a point that we have developed vaccines and treatments and herd immunity against the Corona virus, things will not go back to just the way it all was before. We are living through an inflexion point of radical change, while being deprived of one of our oldest and most basic resources, which is human connection.
See, I am not a doctor. I don’t even play one on TV. Everything I think I know about COVID-19 I have learned in the past three weeks, from a variety of sources whose validity I have few resources to examine. Here is what I knew before, that I learned over time, that I have reason to trust – and I know this because it is relevant to the work I do. Like many primates and some other mammals, human beings have open limbic systems. This means that we physically influence the way the bodies of people around us function. We influence one another’s breathing, pulse, hormones, blood pressure, body temperature, to name just a few. When one person is subjected to stress, whether from physical injury or emotional crisis, that stress makes it more difficult for them to regulate their own physiological functioning – they feel tired, sick, anxious, weak. The normal – and normally helpful – response of others is to touch that person; to hug them and hold them and be physically close, which helps to support their less regulated limbic system through the better regulation of those less stressed others. The injured person can rest in the breathing and heartbeat of community, and be allowed to heal. That impulse to take someone who is suffering literally into our arms is deeply instinctual, and deeply right most of the time. The cruelest thing about the Corona virus and its kin is that they use our social nature against us. And in order to fight them, we must fight our own instinct of what it means to help, and to care. It’s a smart trick that virus has, but in the end, we are smarter. Or we can be.
What we are being told right now, and it makes sense, is that this virus is so contagious, and our bodies are so unprepared for it, that the most effective response is to practice ‘social distancing,’ which means to stay away from each other. In a crisis like this, which would normally pull us toward our families and friends and communities of support, we must discipline ourselves to keep an uncomfortable boundary. And this does not mean that we won’t get sick eventually, only that we won’t get sick as fast, all together, and that gives our health care infrastructure a better chance to take care of us. So, if we are smart, we will keep that crucial distance which slows down the progress of the epidemic, so that more of us will be okay in the end. And that means that gatherings like this one won’t be safe for a while – we don’t really know yet for how long.
The problem, of course, is that a church is all about connection – that is what re-ligion is; renewing and strengthening our connections – to each other as one important dimension. And so many of the ways we do this are, in fact, physical. We come together, we greet each other with touch, we sing together, we eat together, we breath the same air as we con-spire together to change the world. All of this we must now relinquish for a season — think of it as what we are giving up for Lent.
Once upon a time, the season of Lent was about necessity. It was about the time of year when the stored harvest was pretty well used up, before anything much was growing in the early spring. It was a time of want, and hardship. A time, perhaps, of temptation, when you might want to eat the grain that was stored for seed, or the animals that would soon give birth to the next generation. It was a time of self-restraint, when it was better for the community as a whole if the rich and privileged did not indulge themselves when the poor could not. It was a time of recognizing the connection between human behavior and the creative, generative forces of the earth and the universe, that could only function in cooperation – of acknowledging the interdependent web of all existence, and what it required from us in order for abundance to happen again in time. It didn’t start out as sacrificing an arbitrary pleasure in order to give god a cheap thrill; it started out as a reverent acknowledgement of sacred necessity, of the role played by self-restraint in the service of both the common good and the web of life.
I invite you into that consciousness for the next several weeks, or months; however long it takes to ride out this wave of disease. I invite you to share the spiritual challenge of maintaining our connection to one another, and to the ideals that we share, even while we are forbidden to touch. We are sacrificing something that is profoundly good, and that we deeply want and enjoy and depend on, in the service of a larger purpose, so that our community may live and thrive over the long term. And we are, I promise you, doing this together. We are smart; smarter than this virus. We are creative; we will figure this out.
I wish I could give you exact instructions today for how our gathering will work next week, but the truth is the ark isn’t entirely built yet. Some very talented people, both here at All Souls and across the UUA, are working on this question, and we have tools and resources available. The internet is an integral strand in our interdependent web now; if you don’t feel you can find our church website, or our existing recorded services on Youtube, please call the church office. We have volunteers who will help set you up; if you don’t have the basic equipment, we can help with that too. By Friday, we will have a plan for this time next week – perhaps our regular livestream broadcast, or a modification of that; perhaps a Zoom meeting or webinar format; we just don’t know yet. Whatever it is, we will put details in the Friday Flicker, and also on the All Souls website. We will have at least a way to connect and share some thoughts and some music, to remind us all that we are not doing this alone. On Thursday evening, after our Wednesday board of trustees meeting, I will have a live Zoom conference – with the help of our fabulous tech support folks — where I will share the plans we have put in place at that time. If you want to experiment with this process, just to see what it’s like, join us. Or, if you do this all the time, and might be able to help out once in a while, also join us. Just join us, as often as you can, to hang out, and to remember that you are not doing this alone; we are in it together.
Let’s all remember that we are in this together as a journey into the unknown; we are going to try some things, and learn some things, and not all of it is going to work exactly right the first time. The reality of what we know about this virus, and what is going on in the culture around us, is going to be constantly changing – not always as fast as this week, let’s hope, but often enough that we are going to have to stay nimble to keep up. Bear in mind that our staff is going to be working from home as much as we can, so the building may be closed at times, with no one here to let you in unless you call ahead. If your small group wants to meet in person, we can arrange for that, or we can help you set up an on line link for a virtual meeting.
We must also remember that some of us are going to become quite ill, and may need help and support. All Souls will be setting up a system to check in with those who live alone, and we will try to organize folks who are able to run errands and drop off items for anyone who finds themself in quarantine. There is virtue in keeping your infection to yourself, but there is no virtue in keeping your sorrows and fears and concern for others to yourself. Pick up the phone or the keyboard, and let me or someone else know how you are doing. It is also possible that some of our staff or lay leaders will be out of commission for a period of time, so let’s plan to be patient if things don’t go as smoothly as we are used to at some point. None of us has been down this road before; we are all worried and on edge, but we don’t have to let the virus rob us of our spirit of good will. I assure you that you will never regret having been extra gentle and understanding during these fraught times. I would like to honor the medical professionals in our community, to thank and support them for the extra work and risk that they undertake on behalf of the sick, and all of us. We should also be conscious of those whose incomes may be severely reduced by the increasing social and economic disruptions we are likely to see. It is always true that everyone around you is carrying hidden griefs and unseen burdens; these are heavier than ever just now, so I invite us all to make it a practice to be deliberately kind.
Fortunately for us, the human connections that make us who we are do not reside in our physical proximity alone. It is what we carry in our minds and hearts that sustains us, and helps to weave the web of community. Our thoughts and words and attention also have power; power to heal and encourage, to comfort and bless each other.
Early spring is always a hard awakening; the cruel intersection of hope’s promise and harsh reality. Now, as never before, we abide in that uncertainty, not knowing exactly what comes next, only that it will be inescapably different from anything we have known before. Now we engage a test, to see what we are made of, as a people, as a community. Now our covenant becomes more than a set of familiar words, and rises to a sustaining promise that holds us still, when the more tangible ties must be let go for a time. Now, when the interdependent web vibrates with the downside of contagion, do we yet trust it to hold us in meaningful connection, or was it always just a pretty image, without substance?
Dearly Beloved, make it so. With every tool we have, let us seek to abide in community of heart and mind and spirit, even if we must loose our hands for the sake of our shared well-being. We will miss that comfort of presence and touch; I will miss it with an ache that will last as long as we have to be separated, and I know that you will, too. Do you remember that Second Presbyterian here in KC suffered a devastating fire, just before I was called to serve this congregation? They had to demolish and rebuild their beloved facility, and they had to meet in rented space for a long time while that happened. I was always touched by the sign they put up on the construction fence; it said, “The building burned. The church is meeting at a temporary location.” Well, it’s the same now for us; our Sunday assemblies are suspended for the time being, but the church continues to operate, every time we reach out to each other, serve each other, check on each other, connect with each other; every time we think about the ideals we share, and what it means to uphold our faith values in this global crisis. No virus can steal these reflections and meanings and connections from us.
Please take exquisite care of yourselves, my dear ones. Please stay in touch as we work out how best to do community in these unfamiliar ways. May peace and hope and love and wholeness be with you, each and all, until this too shall pass, and we shall meet again.