By the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
This past week was riddled with anxiety. Grandparents whose retirement home now has a case of the novel coronavirus. Another grandparent exhibiting symptoms eerily similar to Covid-19. News of a seminary classmate and her husband becoming gravely ill with the virus. She recovered. He did not. All of this plus the compounded exhaustion of another week at home, wishing we could see and touch our loved ones.
In his great reflection on grief, C.S. Lewis writes, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”
This is where I am right now, at least some moments. And, if I’m understanding many of you, the feeling is mutual.
Of course these stories are not unique to me, especially in these days of the pandemic, the shock of loss, the anticipatory grief, the watching and waiting amidst a world full of mourning. And, while the world keeps turning, as Craig preached powerfully this Sunday, we owe it to ourselves to not “kill it”, to not deny and bury the sorrow we might feel, even the anticipatory grief over the loss of those who are most at risk. As I’ve said in dozens of funeral services, this pain points back to the love and relationship we shared with our dear ones.
In her exquisite piece in 2014 for the New Yorker, reflecting on grief and the loss of her mother Ruth Margalit quotes this line from David Long:
“Eventually, a truck would come rattling down… a car door would chuff, and the world would go on—not where it had left off but on the other side of this nothing time. And when it did, though she couldn’t quite see it yet, [she] would begin the never-ending task of not forgetting her mother.”
This is what death does, it places an absence like a hard period to end the sentence. There is what comes before this punctuation. Then there is now. What comes next is yet to be written. And we are given the work of remembering in this now. In theological parlance, this is the work of re-membering, holding the pieces of memory together in our selves, in our bodies. Margalit writes, “What is the death of a loved one if not an oxymoron? My mother isn’t here, and yet I see her everywhere.” This profound realization might push us into the deep work of remaining present.
If anything, this pandemic makes the question of remaining present a constant. Yesterday, while returning from the river and my run with the dog, I drove past the airport, with its runways empty and air above clear of approaching and departing planes. And I felt suddenly wistful, experiencing simultaneously that excitement that comes as you approach the airport to leave on a trip, mixed with the hard truth that it will likely be a long while before we can indulge in such a luxury. While some of us may be prone to distract ourselves from the reality of this pandemic, while some of us may retreat into escapist behavior, the truth is we must stay put – for our own good and for the good of our neighbors.
This need not be only difficult or bad news. There is grief here, yes. Here, indeed, is grief over the loss of all that came before. Certainly, here is grief and pain of anticipated losses. But here, now, is also memory. Here is God sitting with us in our pain. Here is a chance to value and appreciate and see the gifts we are given. To stretch out past this moment, to escape, even in our hearts and minds, would be to deny this holy now we are living.
Here and now is an opportunity to be fully present, to appreciate the blessings of life, to feel fully the joy of belonging, the sorrow of loss, the hope for a future, as yet unwritten. Here and now we can be present to one another – it might stretch us – through the limits of time and space – and to be present with the God we have come to know in Jesus, whose promise is always to be with us, in this moment and the next.