Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I, send me.’
One of our first instincts in the face of calamity is to ensure the safety of those we love. So it is in this COVID-19 wilderness that we are calling one another more, asking the age-old question, “How are you?” We truly want to know and stay close even from a distance.
We start close in, because our hearts are wired that way. But rarely do we stop there–invariably the call of compassion draws us to consider others we don’t know who have been adversely affected by what threatens us all. Scientists suggest that empathy is an evolutionary response to help ensure the survival of the species. If so, it is also a God-given capacity for us to truly care for one another. “And who is my neighbor?” a lawyer once famously asked Jesus. In telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes it clear that a neighbor is one who demonstrates kindness.
A question that hovers around a crisis like this is “Where is God?” Let me be clear that in our church, human suffering is not interpreted as an expression of God’s anger; nor do we believe that God causes suffering. We believe God is present with us in suffering and able to bring good out of hardship. Still, we all struggle to feel God’s presence at times, doing our best to respond to glimpses of grace and the guidance for which we pray.
Another, equally important question is this: “Where are we?” Let me suggest that we are all here, present and accounted for. Some of us may need to stay home, but we’re not passive. Our heroes include not only medical professionals working long shifts, but also those who stock grocery shelves, deliver packages, and pick up trash. Those of us keeping physical distance are showing up in other ways–working from home, schooling our kids, holding things together, checking on our neighbors. We’re not perfect by any means, but we’re all rising to this moment in ways that can surprise even us.
As it turns out, deeds of kindness are precisely what we need in order to cope with our own sorrow and fear. In the words of Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor:
The best thing to do when fear has a neck hold on you is to befriend someone who lives in real and constant fear. The best thing to do when you are flattened by despair is to spend time in a community where despair is daily bread. The best thing to do when sadness has your arms twisted behind your back is to sit down with the saddest child you know and say, “Tell me about it. I have all day.” (quoted in Richard Rohr’s daily meditation for March 26, 2020)
In showing up for others, we’re not asking them to make us feel better. Something deeper is at stake–the mystery of experiencing grace and solidarity in the hardest times.
We’re also holding up our part of the world. The simple tasks of tending to our relationships, tending to normal routines in an abnormal time, are our spiritual disciplines now. It may feel strange, but this is important work.
One of my favorite stories in the Bible is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived in a time of great turmoil and right before he was carried off into exile, he planted a tree. That tree would take root in his homeland and remain as a sign of hope for better days to come.
We all have trees to plant. We’re here, present and accounted for, ready to do our part.