Repent, and Cancel Your Zoom Meetings
May 17, 2020
What we are confronted with, then, is a foreign land, a passage through a desert: testing and discernment. But in this same land, from which God is not in fact absent, the seeds of a new spirituality can germinate. This spirituality gives rise to new songs of the Lord.
What new songs are we being asked to sing today? How is this passage through the desert testing us and leading to deep discernment? We are living in a strange kind of exile right now: an exile from the physical presence of one another. We’re unable to share hugs at church, to pass communion from hand to mouth, to rest our heads on one another’s shoulder as we recite our prayers and blessings. I was so looking forward to finally getting to watch Collin Bosley-Smith play baseball this spring, to sit in the stands with Dixcy and Nolan on a warm spring night, munching on popcorn, smelling the fresh grass and hearing the boys’ banter from the dugout, to jump to my feet and pump my fist in the air as Collin zipped a fastball past another hapless batter.
This was one of the many activities I was looking forward to in my first spring in DC without grad school obligations. The majority of my time the past few months has been spent in the cozy, beautiful, but very small studio apartment where I now live with my girlfriend, Alli. I can’t play tennis, I can’t go to church, and I can’t go swimming at the raucous Banneker Pool -- so many of the things that fill me with joy and wonder and love, that make me feel God’s love for us and for all of creation at a deep, visceral level have suddenly been taken away.
I spend most of my day at the computer. If I thought it was bad before this pandemic, I had no idea! I am among the extremely lucky people who have been relatively unaffected by Pandemic. I worked from home as a contractor to begin with, and my income, health insurance, and all the rest have been unaffected. The mass suffering inflicted by this pandemic and by our government’s disastrously inadequate response is evident to me only through my screens, in pixels of light piped in through a vast, invisible network of fiber-optic cables and computer servers across the world. Every day when I open my computer, I see images of doctors and nurses sprinting through crowded hospitals. I see mothers standing in food lines that stretch for blocks on end. I see black and brown people being thrown to the ground by police officers for allegedly violating social-distancing orders. I see Twitter and YouTube overrun with conspiracy theories of a secret, global plan hatched by Bill Gates to use coronavirus vaccines to implant us all with microchips -- and I see millions of people responding, sharing, and elevating these messages while nurses and doctors plead for better equipment. All of this -- and more -- comes through technology that is more and more embedded in my daily life.
I think that many in my situation are left wondering what we can do to help. We donate to nonprofits and charities. We volunteer to deliver groceries or medical supplies. Some who own small businesses are converting their operations to support coronavirus relief efforts. But no matter what we do, we’re faced with the reality that the destruction this virus is causing is far, far greater than any of our efforts. Anything we do feels like a drop in the bucket.
We often respond to crisis by springing into action. But right now, there are no protests to attend - at least, not the kind worth going to. We can’t volunteer at hospitals. We can only check in on our neighbors from a distance of six feet, with masks on.
But not to worry? The technologists say: We now have Zoom! We conduct worship on Zoom. We catch up with family on Zoom, attend birthday parties on Zoom, go to class on Zoom, and many of us attend work meetings all day on Zoom. We have Zoom meetings to plan Zoom meetings about when we will have more Zoom meetings.
Our desire to stay connected, productive, and helpful in this age of physical distancing is, of course, well and good, and I myself have been very involved in our own community’s efforts to conduct business, fellowship and worship online. But what I hope to impress upon you today is how essential it is, amid this flurry of online activity, to continue to ask ourselves - to what end?
As a Faith Community, our primary duty is to follow God’s call. Perhaps if we were a data-driven secular organization, it would be easier to figure out how to respond to this moment of crisis. But that’s simply not who we are.
- If we wish to hear God’s voice;
- if we wish to know God’s presence;
- if we wish to feel the joy of the Psalmist who implores us, “Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of God’s praise be heard”;
- if we wish to channel the Spirit of Truth that Jesus promises to the disciples in John 14;
- if we wish to experience the one, true God, the Great Unity described by the Apostle Paul in Acts as the Presence “in whom we live and move and have our being”;
then we must take time to unplug. Our journey through the Scriptures today shows us why we need to unplug - and points to how we might do this.
My focus today is on Psalm 66. The takeaway message: what’s in our heart matters to God.
Psalm 66 is a remembrance of the Exodus story, one of the Israelites’ founding myths. Based on its first lines, you might think that Exodus is a happy, triumphant story: “Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, 9who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.”
But the very next lines remind us just how difficult that experience was, the oppression and hardship of living as slaves under Pharaoh, and being cast out into the desert. The Psalmist writes “you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads.; we went through fire and water; yet you have brought us out into a spacious place.”
I don’t know about you all, but the “spacious place” bit at the end sort of pales in comparison to what’s said before. God did WHAT??? This is starting to sound like a form of Christianity I really can’t get behind, one that says, “Yes, yes, life is suffering, but if you just grit your teeth and trust the process, God will reward you in heaven.”
But I don’t think that’s what the Psalmist is saying here. In verse 17, they describe the particular kind of prayer that can lead us through hard times: “I cried aloud to God, and God was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly, God has listened.”
“If I had cherished iniquity in my heart...” Iniquity is not a word we use much these days, but it means wickedness, vice, or evil. So, when we cherish those things in our hearts, God doesn’t listen. Or, perhaps, God cannot hear us. Finding connection with God during difficult times requires that we first look inward, that we examine our hearts, and clear out the wickedness, vice, or evil that we find there. Easier said than done.
Even though I love theology and books and ideas, I would argue that Christianity is a Way of the Heart more than a Way of the Head. The Heart refers to much more than just romantic or family love, which is what it usually means in our culture. The Heart is the deeper self, the authentic self that sits beneath our visible self, our appearance, and our personality.
Marcus Borg, one of my favorite Christian writers, says that The Bible often speaks of “open hearts,” and “closed hearts,” to describe different states of our human condition. The Heart, our deepest self, can be turned toward God (open) or away from God (closed). An open heart helps us see beyond our own suffering and pain. A closed heart limits our vision and our hearing: “enclosed in our own world, we neither see nor hear very well,” Borg writes. (The Heart of Christianity, 2003)
A closed heart lacks gratitude; it is insensitive to wonder and awe; it forgets God.
A closed heart and bondage go together; a closed heart and exile go together. As in the Exodus story, we can be in bondage because of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart. And Pharaoh can also live within us; we are often in bondage to the desiring of our own hearts. Self-preoccupied, turned inward upon itself, the shut heart is cut off from a larger reality.
Why do our hearts close, and harden? In many ways, it’s a natural reaction to pain. It’s self-protection, a way of guarding against being wounded once again. We are fallible creatures living in a fallen world -- pain is inevitable.
To know what’s in your heart, you first have to slow down and listen. Slow down and feel, rather than just soldiering on. We oftentimes find our hearts are closed. Oftentimes, for good reason.
On Friday of last week, after days of non-stop Zoom meetings and emails and phone calls, I found myself suddenly overcome with sadness and grief. Where was this coming from? Oh, right...it’s the middle of spring, the heart of lacrosse season. As many of you know, I played lacrosse growing up and through college. It was my heart’s deepest call for many years, the thing that opened my heart to connect with others and with God in a deep and profound way. But during my college years, lacrosse became a source of great pain for me, both physically and emotionally. Last week, when I finally slowed down, memories of that pain came roaring back in my body and my mind. It knocked me flat for a couple of days. I tried distracting myself with food and YouTube videos, but it didn’t work. Finally, Alli and I shut our computers and headed out to the woods of Rock Creek.
We found a quiet space off the trail, and Alli let me be. All around me was a kind of stillness and peace I hadn’t experienced in weeks. The wind rustling through the trees, the creek down below, the birds echoing each other in an endless call-and-response, reminded me that I was part of something so much bigger than the challenges of today; so much bigger than the pain of my past; so much bigger than anything I could possibly create or imagine on my own.
I opened my arms to the canopy of green and gold above me and wept at the healing presence of Spirit moving through me. By the time we left an hour later, I wasn’t completely healed. The pain of the world had not been resolved. But it set me back onto the path of listening in to my heart, and being present with the pain and confusion that causes it to close and to harden.
Such moments of returning to God are often very emotional for me. It is the feeling of returning home to a state of being far more expansive than my day-to-day. A state of communion far more profound than any lightning-fast connectivity to other minds through the internet.
Kevin Boteler recently spoke to me of our “visceral need” to spend time outdoors. It’s important to remember that time in nature is not a luxury item. Jesus spent most of his life outdoors -- probably in bare feet!
Last Sunday after church, I called up my friend Helen Walker. I was feeling better, but still struggling to make sense of why this pain from the past kept coming up again and again. I’ve always admired Helen’s ability to be joyful, grateful and loving in spite of the hardship and abuse she’s faced since childhood. She confirmed what I’d been feeling: “Even long after you’ve forgiven those people, the pain is still there.” But why? I asked. If God loves us, why would this be? “Your trials have come to make you strong, period,” she said. “You can be destroyed by them. Or you can ask God to help you make it through.” As Psalm 66 says “10For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.”
To really feel how God helps us grow stronger through pain, we must slow down and listen, rather than just reacting out of that pain. We have to understand the woundedness we’re carrying before we can really try to address the woundedness of the world. But we’re pulled in a different direction by the technology of our day: the online environment is structured to facilitate speed and quantity, rather than richness and depth. It offers us powerful tools, but it is only one slice of reality. To experience the whole, we need to step away, to move at a slower pace, the pace of the sacred.
This pandemic is a time we can use to examine our Hearts. How have our hearts become hardened? What needs to happen for us to open them once more? It is not easy. It is not “fun.” But if we wish to feel the love of God, the presence of something greater than ourselves, a transcendent purpose during these very strange and uncertain times, this is the work we must do. I look forward to continuing to do this work in community with you all, using Zoom and other technology when it serves that purpose, and canceling Zoom when it does not, setting us free to hike, run, read, bake, bike, build, garden, and do whatever it is we need to drop into our hearts, feel our pain, and invite God in to heal and transform us.