Be Kind, for Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Great Battle

Like schools across the country, the Yale University School of Music has been deeply affected by COVID-19. Figuring out how to perform ensemble and orchestra music or even teach lessons has been an incredible challenge. On May 18, 2020, School of Music Dean Robert Blocker stood in an empty Morse Recital Hall on Commencement Day in front of an online audience and said, “The disappointment among and between us all is palpable. Despair is a place where hopelessness resides. It is the destination for those who have been completely broken by the world and its relentless disappointments. The artist must summon the courage to take a different, unmapped route, and that detour around the destination of despair enables us to push forward.”[i]

Taking that detour around the destination of despair is a challenge for all of us as we continue to adapt and innovate during this Pandemic time. I am reminded of a quote that has been attributed to Plato and also to Philo of Alexandria, but there is no clarity about its origin. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” As we approach the one-year anniversary of our world-wide struggle with the Pandemic, I wonder, “What has COVID-19 taught us?”

I have vivid memories of sending an email to clergy and laity in the Iowa Annual Conference on March 12, 2020, saying, “With fourteen cases of COVID-19 reported by the Iowa Department of Public Health (as of March 11) and an additional 126 being monitored, the Iowa Annual Conference is canceling or postponing all upcoming events for the months of March and April 2020. The evolving situation is being closely monitored and information will be updated frequently.”

Just two days later, the evening of Saturday, March 14, I sent an email to all clergy, advising them to cancel in-house worship for the foreseeable future. I wrote, “As it has become clear, the coronavirus will get worse before it gets better. That has entailed changes in our everyday life and work, as we all seek to avoid exposure and infection with the virus.”

I chuckle at my naivete. Lament is the word that best describes where many of us sit right now. Hopes and dreams have been dashed for many over this past year. We are out of synch, feeling unmoored, untethered, uncertain, and forced to take a different, unmapped route. Will the Pandemic ever end? When will I be able to see my grandchildren? Will the day ever come when we can all gather together for in-person worship without wearing masks or social distancing? Will I be able to hug my church friends again? I have only met one time in-person with our Iowa Annual Conference cabinet since last March, and we were masked and socially distanced across the room. There are so many things we cannot do. But one thing we can do. Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. We are literally all in this together.

There has been a lot of talk over these last months about COVID fatigue. We are worn out from one virtual meeting after another. We desperately miss our family and friends whom we cannot see. And many people have lost jobs and are literally living on the edge. The stress of COVID can manifest itself in different ways, including feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry, numbness, or frustration; changes in appetite, energy, desires, and interests; difficulty concentrating and making decisions; trouble sleeping; physical reactions such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems, and skin rashes; intensification of existing health conditions; and substance abuse.

At the same time, we are beginning to emphasize the importance of COVID-resilience as the Pandemic continues and we wait for the time when everyone will be vaccinated. Resilience is the ability to recover or bounce back from difficult situations and challenges. Resilience is not something we are born with but is a skill that is gained as we learn how to cope with adversity and challenges. How can you and I learn how to be kind and live fully and joyfully in the midst of a pandemic that has turned our entire existence upside down?

Shortly after the Pandemic began, Psychology Today published an article, “Seven Skills of Resilience: Practical Ways to Enhance Well-Being in These Trying Times.” I share them as suggestions for how we can all learn how to be kind in these trying times, for everyone we meet is fighting the same battle.

Principle 1: Cultivate a Belief in Your Ability to Cope

Knowing that there are so many things outside our control, how can we learn how to focus on the resources that we do have? They could include a warm home, a phone, and a computer that provides ready virtual access to family; good neighbors; friends who provide a listening ear; the ability to stay connected with our church by worshipping online and attending virtual Bible studies; eating healthy foods; and getting enough exercise and sleep. Acknowledge that everyone you meet is fighting a great battle and be kind, especially to yourself.

Principle 2: Stay Connected with Sources of Support

Make phone calls. Send emails. Write letters. Do a Zoom Bible study through your church. Maintain contact with your neighbors and friends. Stay in touch with your children and grandchildren.

Principle 3: Talk About What You’re Going Through

Assemble a group of friends who meet regularly. Do a weekly check-in with family members. Talk with your pastor, and if things become more difficult, find a counselor.

Principle 4: Be Helpful to Others

Focusing on others shifts attention away from our own fears and concerns. In our neighborhood, we have connected by taking turns every month providing a soup supper for each other. When we are able to help others, we help ourselves. Pay special attention to those who are the most vulnerable. Reflect God’s love in everything you do.

Principle 5: Activate Positive Emotion

Listen to your favorite music, watch comedy shows that make you laugh, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Take on household projects you would not have time to do in normal times. Use some different recipes. Get out and walk in the woods. Take up a new hobby. Save a turtle. Do the things that give you joy.

Principle 6: Cultivate an Attitude of Survivorship

A positive attitude goes a long way. Yes, we have never experienced anything like this in our lifetimes. But at the same time as we are not completely in control of our circumstances, neither are we completely helpless, either. Many of us underestimate our own power to adapt and thrive in difficult circumstances. It is possible to summon the courage to take a different, unmapped route, and that detour around the destination of despair enables us to push forward. We can survive this!

Principle 7: Seek Meaning

Stay connected with your faith community. Churches as well as individuals can become resilient when we determine that no one will slip through the cracks. Use phone trees to check in with each other. Offer to help others make use of technology so they can worship online at home. Host a weekly virtual gathering of seniors. And, most of all, remind each other to “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

Thank you for your continued kindness.

[i] Music at Yale, Fall 2020/Winter 2021, p. 11.

Unrevealed Until Its Season

It’s sunset in Clive, Iowa. My home office faces west, and I watch the brilliant red, orange, and yellow colors fade into darkness. I sing to myself:

In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;

In cocoons a hidden promise; butterflies will soon be free.

In the cold and snow of winter, there’s a spring that waits to be,

Unrevealed until its season, something alone God can see.

“Hymn of Promise,” United Methodist Hymnal, #707

It is the season of winter, and I am deeply grateful that out of the isolation of life confined mostly to home, blessings still abound. Unrevealed until its season, Lent beckons us to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

In the midst of the fear of contracting COVID-19; depression because we can’t go anywhere; worry about elderly parents; anxiety about our children; grief because we cannot cuddle grandchildren on our lap; and sorrow that so many are suffering financially, emotionally, and relationally – there’s a spring that waits to be. God with us even – especially – in the dark places.

God of all seasons, in your pattern of things

there is a time for keeping and a time for losing,

a time for building up and a time for pulling down.

In this holy season of Lent, as we journey with our Lord to the cross,

Help us to discern in our lives

What we must lay down and what we must take up.

What we must end and what we must begin.

                                    (The Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland)

I recently discovered a diary that I kept from 1974-1975. It was my junior year in college, which I spent at the Berliner Kirchenmusikschule (Berlin Church Music School) in West Berlin, Germany. Growing up, I never adjusted well to new circumstances and always experienced homesickness when away from my family. Yet learning German at the Goethe Institute in West Berlin for two months and then fully immersing myself in studying organ, choir conducting, composition, and voice was exhilarating. In this highly intense and competitive music environment, I asked myself every day, “What am I doing here?” Still, I was able to bloom and grow. Unrevealed until its season.

Fortunately, my college roommate at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio happened to be studying in Basel, Switzerland at the same time as I was in West Berlin, so we decided to spend the Christmas break together. I took a train to Freiburg, Germany, where Jennifer was staying with her host family at their summer home in the Black Forest. We attended a packed Christmas Eve mass, which was totally foreign, fascinating, and deeply moving. A few days later, Jennifer and I boarded a train and headed off to Milan, where we would catch another train to Rome.

The scene remains vivid in my mind these many years later. I wrote in my diary, “It’s 1:15 a.m., and do I have a story to tell! My passport case was stolen an hour ago, as Jennifer and I were walking from car to car, trying to find seats on the standing room only train from Milan to Rome. I realized the inherent danger in the situation and was holding on to my passport case tightly.” Oh, well.

Once I realized it was gone, we quickly got off the train and were directed to the Polizei. I filled out all the necessary forms so that I could get a temporary passport the next day at the American Consulate in Milan. But the loss was so much greater than my passport. In the passport case was my International Student Identity Card, my Social Security card, an eight-day train ticket for Italy and return ticket to West Berlin, a credit card, police papers from Berlin, cash, and traveler’s checks.

There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody.

There’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.

From the past will come the future, what it holds, a mystery,

Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Jennifer and I spent a sleepless night in the Milan train station, with numerous creepy men checking us out. We were cold, hungry, and bone-weary, yet we had to stay awake. After I was able to secure a temporary passport the next day, we decided to pack it in and return to Basel, Switzerland, where Jennifer was living with her host family. After a few days, I took the train back to Berlin and was ready to stay put for a while. Two months later, I received a letter from the American Consulate in Milan, returning a few of the stolen items that had been recovered, minus the money.

At our next school break, I planned to travel to Vienna to visit a high school friend who was studying there. The night train would take me from the West Berlin train station to an East Berlin train station, where I would transfer to another train that would overnight me to Vienna.

Unfortunately, I got off at the wrong station in East Berlin. After waiting for a little while, I became uncertain about the transfer and approached an East German guard. Yes, this was at the height of the Cold War, and I was terrified. After he told me it was too late to make connections to Vienna, I made my way back to West Berlin and tried again early the next morning. It ended up being a wonderful trip. Unrevealed until its season.

I was ultimately not called to be a professional church musician, although I still love music. From the past will come the future. It was music that led me to discover that my real call was pastoral ministry. And it was music that led me to The United Methodist Church, unrevealed until its season. While studying for a Master’s degree in organ performance at Yale, I not only met my husband, who was a United Methodist, but I also served as the director of music at a United Methodist Church in Connecticut for five years.

In our end is our beginning, in our time, infinity;

In our doubt there is believing, in our life, eternity.

In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,

Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

During this season of Lent, what endings, some yet unrevealed, will lead to new beginnings for us as individuals, as United Methodists, and as a world? How will COVID-19 continue to teach us that we are one global family and that the choices we make have a ripple effect that affects all of us? How will the anti-racism movement change us? How will our local churches innovate, grow, and flourish because of the challenges we have faced? How can we love and care for one another even when we disagree on important issues? To what do we need to die as individuals and as a denomination in order to walk boldly into a future with hope that is unrevealed until its season? Once again, in our end is our beginning.

The Way

It’s the journey that counts, not the destination. Growing up, my father used to say to us kids when we were traveling, “Look out the window. Pay attention to everything you see. Don’t be so eager to get to your destination that you can’t relish the beauty all around you.”

As our annual Lenten journey begins this week on Ash Wednesday, I decided to prepare my heart, mind, and spirit by reading Jane Leach’s book, Walking the Story; In the Steps of Saints and Pilgrims. Dr. Leach is a British pastor and theologian who is Principal of Wesley House, a Methodist theological college in Cambridge, England. She also introduced leaders in the Iowa Annual Conference to the practice of reflective supervision last year.

Walking the Story is a theological recounting of Leach’s 2005 pilgrimage on the five-hundred-mile El Camino pilgrimage trail from Pied-de-Port in southern France, across the Pyrenees, and stretching across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. Since Gary and I walked the Camino in 2019, I felt a nudging to use her book as part of my own Lenten journey this year.

The image I often use for Lent is that of “the Way,” which, as every Camino pilgrim discovers, is a journey that mirrors the life of Christ. The night before Jesus was crucified, he instructed his disciples in John 14:1-6. “Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. You know the way to the place I’m going.” Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

During Lent, we have an opportunity to walk with Jesus on the Way to Jerusalem and the cross. There are three parts to this journey along the Way. First, the Lenten journey always begins with letting go. On the Camino, the letting go starts before the first step is even taken and lasts for the entire journey. In order to walk with Jesus along the Way, we let go of family, work commitments, and ego. We let go of our cell phone and laptop and commit ourselves wholeheartedly to following Jesus on the Way. We let go of pride, as the Way challenges mind, body, and spirit. And we discover in those first few days that if we do not release some of the cherished possessions in our pack, the physical weight that we carry on our backs will not be sustainable over five hundred miles.

The tangible expression of letting go occurs on Ash Wednesday as we receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads with ashes, along with these words from Genesis 3:19, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” As pilgrims walk step after step after step and day after day after day, we sense that we are breathed into life by the Spirit of God at the same time as we belong to the dust of the earth. The term “humility” comes from the Latin word humilis, which can be translated as “humble”, “grounded”, or “from the earth” (humus). Knowing that we belong to the earth, pilgrims embrace their weakness, humanity, and humility as gifts. The essence of Ash Wednesday is found in the “humus” (soil) of the earth as well as in the ashes of repentance. We are breathed into life by the Spirit of God, yet we also belong to the earth. Too often, however, we are weighed down by our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual baggage. I feel the humility in my body as I walk the Way and yearn to let go.

Second, our Lenten journey along the Way includes an acute awareness that we walk with the whole human race. When we engage with Christ, the Pilgrim, the one who had no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20), our focus extends beyond our own humanity to the spiritual needs of our neighbors who also walk on the Way. In fact, in many parts of our world, walking is the only form of transportation. Dr. Leach writes, “Mission becomes our continued pilgrimage with others into the living heart of God who has made all of humanity his Home.”[i]

As we physically walk, mile by mile, day by day through Lent, we become more and more aware that our minds, bodies, and spirits have become one. Dr. Leach cites James Nelson, who said, “If we do not know the gospel in our body, we do not know the gospel. We either experience God’s presence in our bodies or not at all.”[ii]

As every pilgrim will attest, we become community on the Camino, and strangers soon become friends. Everyday walkers encounter people who are suffering from blisters, hunger, and all kinds of aches and pains, and they are always ready to help. At the same time, we wrestle with our own private demons that threaten our faith by saying, “You are not worthy. You are not able. Why did you ever think you could do this?”

Those who travel the Camino give up whatever status, education, or power they may have in order to journey the Way together and show hospitality to one another. At the end of the first and most difficult day of hiking, pilgrims cross over the Pyrenees Mountains from France to Spain and spend the night in Roncesvalles, whose monastery demonstrates centuries of unbroken hospitality. What a blessing to see a statue of a weary pilgrim with this 13th-century poem:

The gate is open to everyone: To the sick and to the well,

Not only to Catholics But also to unbelievers,

To Jews, heretics And vagabonds as well.[iii]

Third, when Camino walkers arrive at the Church of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, where pilgrim masses are held twice a day, we discover that the end of the 500-mile Lenten journey is also a new beginning. Seeing the gigantic swinging botafumeiro send incense across the cathedral and embracing the centuries-old tradition of hugging the statue of St. James remind us that the journey is not over. Rather, the pilgrimage is meant to open doors to new life in Christ. Having been strangers ourselves on the Way, we vow to embody our life’s journey with new commitments to care for the least, the last, and the lost.

Our world desperately needs pilgrims whose primary focus is embodying the grace of Jesus Christ. Our world needs those who journey by taking up their cross, following Jesus, and inviting others to follow. And our world needs those who see our common humanity rather than our differences and respond with compassion and grace.

How will you be spiritually formed during this season of Lent? What disciplines will you practice along the Way? Fasting? Seeking reconciliation with someone who has harmed you? Intentional Scripture reading? Tithing? Reaching out to one of your elderly neighbors? Leading a small group for Lent? However you do so, you walk along the Way of Christ.

Lord Jesus Christ, you called your first disciples to follow you, and they left their father and their nets in the boat and went after you. Whether we are called to set out in faith or practice a deeper faithfulness at home, give us grace to leave behind what we do not need, courage to persevere when the way is tough and unrewarding, and find us faithful companions along the way. Amen.[iv]

 

[i] Walking the Story; In the Steps of Saints and Pilgrims, Jane Leach, Inspire, Peterborough, England, 2007, p. 65.

[ii] Ibid, p. 36.

[iii] Ibid, p. 82.

[iv] Ibid, p. 19.