Ordinary Time

Each year on the Sunday after Trinity Sunday, I open my vesting closet with a smile and comb through all of my vestments until I reach a small hanger that holds a single and specific stole.  The stole is green and embroidered on each end with a Celtic knot.  It was a gift from St. John’s, Roanoke parishioners Walter and Sara Miller after we’d traveled with a parish group on pilgrimage to Ireland in 2011.  It is my favorite stole, due to the givers, the gift, and the embroidery, which symbolizes—like Jesus’ metaphor of the vine in John 15—our interconnectedness with God and one another.  I also like the stole because its annual reintroduction into my worship wardrobe marks the beginning of “ordinary time.”

The church year is divided into liturgical seasons, and each season has an important and particular theological and spiritual emphasis.  The season of Advent is anticipatory.  It readies us for the coming of Christ, both in remembrance of the Nativity and in preparation for Jesus’ return at the consummation of all things.  The Christmas season is a twelve-day celebration of the Incarnation.  The Epiphany season encourages us to walk through the world with eyes open to both the mundane and miraculous presence of God.  Lent is the season of penitence, as we vulnerably and honestly examine our lives, expressing contrition for our errors and laboring to repair things we have damaged or neglected.  The season of Easter is the fifty-day joyous exaltation of the Resurrection of Jesus, with its ultimate defeat of death and promise of eternal life for us all.  The Easter season ends with the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, immediately after which we observe Trinity Sunday, the one day of the year in which we wrestle mightily with the doctrine of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If you read the preceding paragraph with calendar in hand, you recognize that there is a long stretch of days, weeks, and months between Trinity Sunday and the First Sunday of Advent.  This season has no name.  Commonly, we refer to it as simply the “season after Pentecost.”  In earlier eras of the church, it was also called “ordinary time.”

Ordinary time gained its name because its many weeks are merely marked with ordinal numbers (week 1, week 2, week 3, etc.).  But as so often in ecclesiastical life, this season’s name took on an additional layer of meaning.  With all the other seasons of the church year so pregnant with emphatic purpose, the long season of ordinary time grants us permission to be, well, ordinary.  It is a blessed coincidence that ordinary time encompasses the summer months.  Now, we can exhale, relax a bit, slow down, and simply be.  In a sense, ordinary time is the sabbath time of the church year.  It grants us the opportunity to enjoy one another with no motive other than that enjoyment.  It allows us to pray to God as primarily a means to get to know God, rather than undertaking the more pointed prayer of the other seasons.

It would be a mistake to imagine ordinary time as a time to neglect our spiritual lives.  It’s certainly not a time to check out of attending church!  Rather, ordinary time is the season in which we can tend to these things for their own sake, without the sometimes-heavy weight that the other seasons carry.  Ordinary time is a “light” season, we might say.  For me, it provides time to focus on the meaning of that Celtic knot embroidered on my green stole: That we are one with Christ and one another, just as Jesus and the Father are one.  Such reflection is especially important as we continue to emerge from the pandemic and reestablish our connections with one another.  Ordinary time grants me the space to savor that reality and recharge my spiritual batteries.  In that way, it is a gift…and it is anything but ordinary!

Whose armor do you wear?

As a seminarian in Austin from 2000-2003, my friends and I would sometimes walk two blocks from the seminary for a cheap lunch at Red River Café.  Another frequent diner during those days was UT quarterback Chris Simms.  Simms would walk in and immediately command the place.  He was tall and broad and had the look of someone carved into marble by the ancient Romans.  Before college, Simms had been USA Today’s national high school offensive player of the year and heralded as the future of the Texas football program.  More than anyone I’ve ever seen, he looked like a quarterback.    

Of course, Chris Simms wasn’t the only quarterback at Texas in those days.  For three years, Simms was locked in a battle with another Longhorn for Texas’ starting position.  During Simms’ sophomore year, he and Major Applewhite, who was a year older, shared the QB position.  As a junior, Simms won the starting QB spot from Applewhite outright.  Applewhite spent the 2001 season as a backup. 

While Applewhite kept the bench warm, Chris Simms catapulted the Longhorns to a #3 national ranking and the Big 12 championship game against Colorado.  It appeared that all the prognostications about Simms, and the look he conveyed at Red River Café, were about to reach their denouement.  But then everything fell apart.  The Longhorns fell behind 29-10 before Simms left the game with a finger injury.  It was then that the much smaller, ruddy, and supremely confident Applewhite came off the bench and led the Longhorns roaring back to within two points of victory.  Texas lost that game, but Applewhite won the starting spot in Texas’s bowl game against Washington, and the 2001 Holiday Bowl turned out to be one of the most exciting football games I’ve ever seen.  Both teams were bloodied and bruised, and the lead changed hands repeatedly.  The Longhorns were losing with two minutes left in the game, but Major Applewhite was indomitable.  In the end, he orchestrated a come-from-behind victory with only seconds remaining.  It’s one of the greatest comebacks in Longhorn history.

Former Texas quarterback Chris Simms: Major Applewhite 'treated me like  crap'
Chris Simms and Major Applewhite

Do I tell this story to pander to a room full of UT fans?  Heavens, no.  I know full well when I broach the Chris Simms-Major Applewhite debate that I am as likely to anger half the room as placate the other half.  I tell the story because, just as Chris Simms looked every bit the part of the ideal quarterback—big, athletic, attractive, commanding—Major Applewhite did not.  Former Longhorn teammate Rod Babers describes Applewhite by saying, “He just wasn’t an athlete. Have you seen Major Applewhite? Have you seen his body?…The pudgy…dude who was wide-waisted with the freckles and the helmet too big.”[i]  And yet, Applewhite repeatedly won the big games in the face of any odds.  Babers goes on to say, “This is the guy going out there [week after week] and carving people up with a spoon.”[ii]

I don’t know if it’s because Chris Simms looked like Adonis and towered three inches over Major Applewhite, or if it’s because Major Applewhite was himself of ruddy complexion and outsized confidence like the biblical David, but something about their story has always reminded me a bit of King Saul and David, as they’re about to face Goliath.

That’s the story we read today from 1 Samuel.  And like the 2001 Holiday Bowl, what a story!  Where we pick up the reading, the Philistines have gathered before King Saul’s army, and they have presented their champion, Goliath, for battle.  Goliath, the bible tells us is “six cubits and a span,” more than nine feet tall.  Whether we take that literally or not, the point is that Goliath terrified and awed the Israelites. 

King Saul himself was a Chris Simms-like character.  Scripture describes Saul by saying, “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.”[iii]  Even so, Saul quakes at the sight of Goliath.  Rod Babers’ comments about Chris Simms in big games are apt for King Saul.  Babers says “He added…pressure onto himself in terms of how he had to perform, and he [often] imploded and collapsed.” 

And that’s when ruddy, undersized, underestimated David takes the field, so to speak.  With a confidence born of faith in God and himself, David says to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of Goliath; I’ll go and fight with this Philistine.”

In our Sunday school, storybook memories, David marches out, spins his sling, and fells Goliath with a stone.  But something else happens first, something crucial and often overlooked.  Before David leaves Saul’s tent, but after Saul and the gathered champions have agreed to let David fight, Saul hoists upon David the collective, conventional wisdom about how to win, how to succeed, how to persevere in the face of this challenge.  Concretely, Saul clothes David in Saul’s armor.

It presents a comical image, David weighed down in armor that swallows him and a sword he cannot lift.  All those around him insist that these are things he needs to protect him and prevail.  But David responds, “I can’t walk in this stuff.  Take it off!”  And he’s right.  In this passing verse, David reveals the basis of his wisdom, his confidence, his wily assurance of his own success.  David knows what Saul does not, what the so-called champions do not, what even Goliath does not: David knows that—no matter how strong, protective, and impressive it may appear—it is foolish to go to battle in someone else’s armor.  And so, David strips down to the clothing he knows and the tools he trusts, and only then steps out and conquers Goliath.

Edgar Degas famous french artist, art-Degas.com - David and Goliath 1863
Degas’ “David and Goliath”

What a lesson for us.  Whether one is eight, eighteen, or eighty, we all live in a world that is constantly telling us, in innumerable ways, what figurative armor we must wear to prevail in life.  Culturally, emotionally, familially, politically, and, yes, sartorially, we are told what we must do in order to be beautiful in our bodies, successful in our work, fulfilled in our relationships, happy in our world.  And we know, deep down, that often the armor we’re told to wear does not fit us.  We put on the armor others commend to us, and we cannot move.  Rather than protect us or facilitate our flourishing, it weighs us down stifles us, and obscures who we truly are.  It is inauthentic.  It is not ours, and donning armor that doesn’t fit is not never the recipe for flourishing.[iv]   

Of course, today in our culture, the most common knee-jerk antidote for shedding the armor imposed upon us is to claim that we should wear whatever we choose, that we be entirely self-authenticating.  But that is detrimental in the opposite way: Rather of denying who we are in favor of others’ images of who we should be, we instead indulge the self in ways that forget that we bear responsibility for one another, that we, like the Israelites in the tent, are all in this together.   

So, how can we know, as David did, what armor to wear?  How can we put on what fits usq before facing the great challenge of life?  David won’t wear Saul’s armor, but neither does David build his own on a whim.   David is a shepherd.  He has spent his life in the wilderness, communing with God.  He has fought lions and bears, protecting the weak committed to his care.  And thus, when the time comes to face his great challenge, David adorns himself with the clothing and tools that have served him faithfully as he has lived faithfully in service.  It is that tunic and that sling that naturally fit and allow him to move with strength and grace, that turn the small ruddy boy into the confident champion. 

That’s key for us as well.  We live in communion with God.  We have been taught to love fiercely, and protectively of those who are weak.  We have been clothed in grace.  When the giants parade before us, taunting and threatening, this is our armor, not hoisted upon us by others and not the product of our own self-desire, but given by God.  When we wear this armor and no other—though, like David, we may not look the part of the champion—we need fear no one, and no giant need be fearsome.  We move forward into life unconstricted, and challenges ultimately give way, because we are clothed with the grace of God that is all the armor we will ever need.  Amen.

[i] https://247sports.com/college/texas/Article/Horns247-QA-with-Rod-Babers-Chris-Simms-Major-Applewhite-37829212/

[ii] Ibid

[iii] 1 Samuel 9:2

[iv] This is true of churches, too, by the way.  I use this overlooked verse of scripture when I conduct vestry retreats for other parishes, because often when churches are fearful and anxious about congregational decline they begin desperately trying to be more like some other church down the road that seems to be going gangbusters.  Congregations will put on some other congregation’s armor; they’ll mimic someone else’s music, or worship, or program; but they soon discover that, figuratively speaking, they can’t move.  They are paralyzed, trapped in an identity that is not theirs.    

“You’re not going to believe this, but you have cancer.”

“You’re not going to believe this, but you have cancer.”  In retrospect, these may not have been the urologist’s exact words when he called me on February 5, but it is accurate that his surprise was as genuine as mine.  Fewer than 3% of men diagnosed with prostate cancer are younger than fifty.[i]  I am forty-eight years old.  Forty-eight year-old men almost never get prostate cancer.  Unless there is a family history of prostate cancer, men usually don’t even begin having their PSA checked until age fifty.  I only began having my PSA checked in my mid-forties because, in an odd coincidence, I have a close friend and colleague who was diagnosed with prostate cancer when in his forties.

PSA is “prostate specific antigen,” a chemical produced in the male body only by prostate cells.  High PSA levels are the best indication of the presence of prostate cancer.  The standard threshold measurement for elevated PSA is 4.0, but that’s misleading.  That threshold is set for older men.  For men under age 60, the threshold for elevated PSA is 2.5.[ii]  The average PSA for a man in his forties is .7.  In 2017, my PSA was 1.94.  In 2018, it had risen to 2.4.  Last November, it was 3.41.  That steady increase over time alerted my primary care physician, who referred me to a urologist.  The urologist ordered an MRI, followed by a needle biopsy.  At every step, because of my age and lack of a known family history of prostate cancer, both physicians repeatedly said, “We’ll do this next test, but don’t worry. Men in their forties don’t get prostate cancer.  It’s an older man’s disease.”  Thus, the urologist’s surprise on February 5, when he received the biopsy results.

Gleason Score - Prostate Conditions

Prostate tumors are graded with a “Gleason score,” which describes the nature of the cancer cells.  The more irregular the cells, the higher the Gleason score.  Said differently, the higher the Gleason score, the more advanced and aggressive the cancer.  Pre-cancerous cells are graded 1 or 2.  Cancer cells are graded 3-5.  Tumors receive two grades: one for the primary cells present and another for any secondary cancer cells present.  The final Gleason score is the sum of these two numbers.  If the primary cells are 3 and the secondary cells are 4, the tumor’s Gleason score is 3+4=7.  The lowest (and therefore “best”) score a prostate tumor can receive is Gleason 6 (3+3).  My needle biopsy suggested that I had a small, fully-contained Gleason 6 tumor in the peripheral zone of my prostate.  There was inconclusive evidence that there might be an additional tumor elsewhere.  The urologist’s counsel was that, though I could pursue immediate treatment if I wanted to, I could also follow an “active surveillance” protocol, in which I’d have regular and periodic PSA tests, MRIs, and biopsies to see if the tumor grew or became more aggressive.  He said I might not need treatment for another 2-5 years.

I am blessed to live in Houston, so I sought a second opinion at MD Anderson, one of the world’s best cancer centers.  I met with both a urological surgeon (Dr. John Davis) and a radiation oncologist (Dr. Seungtaek Choi).  Based upon the MRI and biopsy I’d had previously, the MD Anderson physicians, too, offered me the options of immediate treatment or active surveillance.  The decision was up to me.  On March 16, I decided to move forward with a radical prostatectomy, in which a surgeon removes the entire prostate gland, some surrounding tissue, and the seminal vesicles.  The six weeks between diagnosis and the decision to have surgery were, beyond doubt, the darkest of my life.  Ignorance, uncertainty and indecision are demons that taunt and lurk around the edges of a health crisis, and all three demons plagued me in those days.  As soon as I made the decision to have surgery, the shadows dispelled, and my anxiety washed away.  The change in my demeanor was pronounced and immediate.

I needed to get through Easter before having surgery (I’m a priest, after all), and the earliest post-Easter date available on Dr. Davis’ surgical calendar was April 26.  On that morning, I checked into MD Anderson, and Dr. Davis performed a Da Vinci robotic prostatectomy, making six incisions in my abdomen.  (Eliza says I’ll look super cool at the beach, like I’ve survived a knife fight.)

Reality Check: Should People with Cancer Avoid Robotic Surgery? | Memorial  Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
Da Vinci robotic surgery is space-age stuff.

For two weeks after surgery, I recovered slowly but with the felt assurance that surgery had removed a small and contained tumor, and I could now put the entire experience in the rearview mirror.  Then, on May 11, I received the post-surgical pathology report, which upended me all over again.  The small Gleason 6 tumor was, indeed, contained and successfully removed, but it turned out a much larger, Gleason 7 (3+4) tumor had been hiding in the interior of my prostate.  This second tumor had not shown up on the MRI.  The second tumor had escaped the prostate capsule and invaded the neck of my bladder. Dr. Davis removed the large tumor along with my prostate, but where the tumor was cut from the bladder neck, he got an unclean margin.  (This was not in any way his error.  The cancer at that spot was microscopic.)

It took a day for me to reach Dr. Davis, and several days beyond that to visit with Dr. Choi, the radiation oncologist.  Those intermediate hours were a return to anxiety and shadow, but the explanation and commentary the physicians were able to offer on the pathology report provided comfort.  The character of the Gleason 7 tumor classified it as pT3a, which means the cancer had spread outside the prostate gland but had not reached lymph nodes or seminal vesicles.  The not-great news is that such a cancer has about a 40% chance of recurrence within ten years.  The very good news is that the fifteen-year survival rate for such cancer is still above 95%.  And if the cancer ever does recur, Dr. Choi is confident that radiation and hormone therapy can keep it in check.

This past Monday, June 7, I had my 6-week post-operative PSA check at MD Anderson.  My PSA level was <.1, which means negligible.  That’s exactly what one hopes for after a prostatectomy.  On Monday evening, I told Jill that it had been the 4th best day of my life, ranking after my two kids’ birthdays and my wedding day.

I have recovered well from surgery.  I have returned to the gym, and thanks to Dr. Davis’ world-class skills I have been spared the physiological difficulties sometimes associated with life after prostate surgery.  I’m still exhausted at the end of each day, but even that is getting better.

MD Anderson Cited For Patient Care, Safety Problems – Houston Public Media

I have learned practical lessons from the experience of the past several months.  It is very good that I began having my PSA checked in my mid-forties.  Though standard protocol is to wait until age fifty, I encourage men otherwise.  PSA is simply an add-on test to regular annual blood work.  Even if you have to pay a bit out of pocket, ask your physician to include it.  It is very good that my primary care physician paid attention to the elevation of and trend in my PSA.  It is very good that I followed up with a urologist.  And in my case, it is very good that I pursued surgery when I did.  Immediate treatment will not be the best decision for every man, but given the pT3a tumor, I shudder to think what condition I’d be in if I’d waited.  The ultimate practical lesson is that we must each be advocates for our own health.  Even the best physicians work with limited knowledge and diagnostic evidence.  Standing up for oneself, listening to one’s gut, weighing the best evidence and advice, and making an educated decision are all crucial to one’s health and well-being.

I have also learned existential and spiritual lessons from this experience.  I am a different person than I was on February 5.  Some days, the urologist’s exclamation, “You’re not going to believe this, but you have cancer,” continues to ring true.  Occasionally, it seems as if these past few months I’ve watched my life from the outside, as if viewing a movie about someone else.  That I was a cancer patient, and that I am a cancer survivor, feels foreign and strange.

Most days, however, it feels all-too-intimate.  And I am glad for that.  I wish I hadn’t had prostate cancer, but paradoxically, I’m also glad I had it.  It is making me a better priest.  Empathy for those who receive frightening and potentially life-threatening diagnoses is no longer hypothetical.  It is visceral and real.

I’ve also recognized as I never had before the importance of friends.  The Celts speak of anamchara—soul friends—and in these months I’ve had several.  Jill proved, again and again and again, to be the best life partner a human being could hope for (and far better than I deserve).  My parents carried enough concern for me that I could set my self-concern down occasionally.  The Rev. Morgan Allen, one of my closest friends in ministry and life, was available to me even when I didn’t realize I needed him.  Julie Janos, my friend for thirty years and a courageous breast cancer survivor, talked me off the ledge and gave me clear perspective when my own was distorted.  Parishioner and friend Bobby Tudor, a prostate cancer survivor himself, did the same.  Parishioner Dr. Eric Strom, an MD Anderson physician who saves lives daily, helped me navigate the labyrinthine MD Anderson system.  The Cathedral wardens and parishioners, as well as Bishop Andy Doyle, ministered to me as the Body of Christ.  Not for a moment did I walk alone.

Cathedral parishioners know that I have a serious interest in the wisdom books Ecclesiastes and Job.  Tethered to the Gospels, I believe these books convey the most important theology in the Bible.  Ecclesiastes, Job, and Jesus teach us to engage the world fully—and to love completely—but also to be non-attached.  With Gospel non-attachment, our recognition of the fragility and transience of life leads not to anxiety and fear, but to deep and abiding gratitude and joy.  When we learn not to cling, we begin to live.  This knowledge was academic for me prior to February 5.  I now know it in my soul.

My PSA will be tested again in July and then, because of the pT3a larger tumor, every three months for five years.  I am someone who craves resolution, and another lesson cancer is teaching me is to learn to live with something that, by definition, will never resolve (or, will only resolve—as do all things—when I go to meet my maker).  My cousin Dinky Spears, who is battling cancer herself, taught me not to call the tumor “my cancer.”  Cancer is something to expunge, not own.  I agree with Dinky.  That said, this has been, and on some level will continue to be, my cancer journey.  As with all spiritual journeys, it is as much about the path we take and those with whom we travel as it is about the destination.  For the path and the companions, I am eternally grateful.

The day after surgery

[i] https://www.cityofhope.org/stiller-prostate-cancer-diagnosis-and-case-for-early-screening


[ii] https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/prostate-cancer/prostate-cancer-age-specific-screening-guidelines#:~:text=For%20men%20in%20their%2040s,1.0%20and%201.5%20ng%2Fml.

Grief: Helping one another get to the other side

She was known by parents as the “Drill Sergeant,” and she was the swimming instructor of last resort for kids who made quick and defeating work of the more cheerful and easy-going local swim teachers.  People said she could teach anyone to swim.  A wooden fence surrounded her pool, and parents had to say goodbye to their kids at the gate.  No observing swimming lessons.  You dropped your kid off, and by summer’s end, comes what may, little Johnny or Susie could—and did—swim.  Except Eliza.  After the second or third lesson, the backyard gate opened, and the Drill Sergeant nudged my child toward me.  “I can’t teach her,” the Drill Sergeant exasperatedly said, “She’s on her own.”  With that, the gate shut, and Eliza looked up at me with defeated eyes.

With no other good options, I began my brief career as a swim instructor.  Eliza and I would head to the pool at the Y, and with excruciating slowness and mind-numbing repetition, we would start at one side of the swimming pool, I would back away from her one foot at a time, and she would dog paddle with abandon to reach me until we made it to the other side.  Every time—every time—I let go of her, the expression on her face became a mixture of confusion and fear, as if, no matter how many times we’d done this before, it was a surprise to her to be untethered in the deep.  Every time she reached me after a few seconds of flailing, the relieved grin on her face and the relaxation of her brow made my heart melt.  And somehow, by summer’s end, Eliza could finally swim.

No photo description available.
Eliza, around the time she learned to swim.

In Genesis today, we read the first half of the punchline of the story of the first man, the first woman, the fruit, and the serpent.  Before today’s reading, the serpent entices the man and the woman to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and in the verse immediately prior to today’s passage, we are told that, upon tasting the fruit, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”

Today, God appears and begins to reveal to the man and woman the result of their decision to eat the fruit.  Christian theology has traditionally interpreted this as God’s punishment for disobedience, the “original sin” that plagues humanity to this day.  I have preached on that interpretation more than once.  Instead of that, today I share that the ancient rabbis sometimes read this passage differently, not as sin and God’s retribution for sin, but as the primeval story of the emergence of human consciousness. In that case it is, in other words, the account of our divergence from mere instinct and reactive living.  It is the story of Adam and Eve becoming human.

If Genesis 3 is a story not of original sin but of the dawn of human self-awareness, then the “curse” we begin to read about today is not punishment, but rather simply an explanation of what the experience of living entails for human beings, for creatures who have God-like consciousness but frail and mortal faculties and bodies to process and deal with that consciousness.  After eating the fruit, like God the man and the woman can remember the past and imagine the future.  They can hope, and dream, and plan.  But unlike God, they cannot ensure that any of their hopes will flourish.  The man and the woman will be stymied.  Their memory will include disappointment.  Their hope will be dashed.  Their joy will be preempted by sorrow.  This is the “curse” they unwittingly choose along with the forbidden fruit.  This is what God warned them against.  When they choose self-consciousness, with it comes the consciousness of loss.  In a word, the man and woman introduce into their lives, grief.

Grief is a quintessentially human experience.  That’s not to say that other animals don’t encounter grief.  Famously, elephants grieve their dead, but when we observe them doing so, we say that, to that extent at least, elephants seem quite human.  Grief is the crushing realization that everything in our lives, including our lives themselves and the lives of those we love, is transient.  Unlike God, we and our world are ephemeral–the realization of which crushes us–which is why in the primeval story God so wants to protect us from this knowledge. 

The Long Goodbye: Coping With Sadness And Grief Before A Loved One Dies |  Kaiser Health News

It is fitting that Genesis 3 is appointed for today, as we emerge from the COVID pandemic and begin to take stock of the past fifteen months, because like Adam and Eve opening their eyes in the garden, we have a dawning recognition of just what we have so recently lost.  We’ve lost small things: discrete holidays with loved ones and friends, a summer vacation.  We have lost momentous things: a graduation, a job.  We have lost precious things: loved ones to the virus, or to the ceaseless other ravages that continued while we were cloistered from one another.  And we have lost intangible things: Our blessed illusions of certainty about the future, our confidence that our carefully-constructed life plans will come to fruition, and even our faith in our competence to navigate the world.        

The recognition of all these losses cascades over us, young and old.  Psychologists call this deluge of loss cumulative grief, and it can drown us.  There is a limit to the human capacity to grieve.  And we have reached it.  We find ourselves unable to process all of our individual and collective loss, and we see the effects of our inability all around us.  Acts of random violence—explosions of frustration and powerlessness in the face of loss—are rampant on airplanes, against ambulance workers, in supermarkets, and elsewhere.[i]  Incidence of societal depression has tripled.[ii]  Stunningly, more than half of the young adult in the United States age 18-29 report chronic feelings of hopelessness, as they grapple with the loss of both their formative experiences in the past fifteen months and their plans for the future.[iii]  And in one broad study of a cross-section of the population, seventy-three percent say that their mental health has deteriorated.  Researchers call it “the pandemic within the pandemic.”[iv]  So, what are we to do?

Last week’s episode of the radio show This American Life was on grief, and one section, by producer Sean Cole, was on cumulative grief.  During the pandemic, Cole lost two parents, saw his serious relationship end, and endured the loss of that same girlfriend’s pregnancy.  He is the poster child for cumulative grief.  Cole, like so many, isn’t sure how his future will look.  But at the end of telling his story he does come to this conclusion, “I was asking myself why we were all even here, what is was all for.  I don’t have any faith or doctrine.  I’m not even secure enough of my understanding of the cosmos to be an atheist.  But I did come up with an answer.  It’s simple…The reason we’re all here, I think, is to get each other to the other side.”[v]

Sean Cole spent time at the bedside of two dying parents, and on one level he means we are to help one another approach actual, physical death.  But on another level, he is talking about all of our deaths, large and small…all of our losses, all of our griefs.  In Genesis 3, the dawn of consciousness nearly drowns the man and the woman in grief as it casts them from paradise, but it does not cast them from one another.  Even in their loss, they will walk forever through life together.  They will help one another get to the other side.   

When little Eliza was in that swimming pool, every time she became aware of the depth, no matter how often it happened, confusion and fear began to pull her under.  Only by reaching out her arms and knowing they’d be met by one who loved her was she able to stay afloat and eventually learn to swim.  That is an apt metaphor for our predicament.  The only way we can keep from drowning, the only way we can move through grief, inch by inch; the only way we can discover hope and encounter joy amidst loss; the only way we can get to the other side, is together.  And not as strangers, but as sisters, brothers, friends who trust.

Man Helping A Woman To Cross A Mountain River In The Pyrenees.. Stock  Photo, Picture And Royalty Free Image. Image 151089101.

I worry less these days about viruses and more about our societal willingness to castigate, and cancel, and demonize, and celebrate another’s mistake or error.  I worry that we, both left and right, have become increasingly puritanical and self-righteous, so quick to require a litmus test of language and belief.  These reactions, like the physical violence I described earlier, are another futile attempt to fend off grief by lashing out.  In the long run, they do not work.  I worry because each time we do these things—each time we narrow our communities and dismiss the other—we decrease the shoulders on whom our collective grief can rest.  We lose the hands that can reach out to us as our losses pull us under the waterline.  This is what Jesus is telling us in the Gospel today, as his own family and friends lash out at him.   

We, as the Church, can provide a different witness.  We can prevent one another from drowning in our grief.  We can—we must—extend our arms in love to the one who is flailing.  Because that is why we’re here, to help each other get to the other side. 

[i] https://www.npr.org/2021/05/28/1001385922/the-faa-has-seen-a-significantly-higher-number-of-unruly-passenger-reports-in-20; https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/more-10000-incidents-violence-aggression-and-assault-ambulance-staff-during-pandemic; https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/05/03/king-soopers-shooting-trauma-grocery-workers/

[ii] https://www.republicworld.com/lifestyle/health/pandemic-within-pandemic-covid-made-people-less-active-tripled-depression-says-study.html

[iii] https://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/10/51percent-of-young-americans-say-they-feel-down-depressed-or-hopeless.html

[iv] https://www.republicworld.com/lifestyle/health/pandemic-within-pandemic-covid-made-people-less-active-tripled-depression-says-study.html

[v] Cole, Sean, “When It Rains,” This American Life, episode 738, Act Two.