Returning

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Location, real estate people tell us, is everything. To be DIS-located is, then, a threat.  When things come apart, our energies naturally go toward “relocating” or returning to where we were as soon as possible. A year ago, when the pandemic began, most of us didn’t really know how long it would last or how bad it would be. There is no need to rehearse the vast array of dislocation that has happened.

But what does it mean to “return?” While we are all eager to get back to normal, whatever that is, we have seen things about our common life and each other that we cannot “unsee.” There are more than half a million fellow Americans who died as the world struggled to find a solution. If we rejoice we must somehow also grieve together.

My wife and I were fortunate to get our first shot on Wednesday and we will go back in three weeks to get the 2nd. By the time we are able to be with our youngest grandchild again, we will have missed two of her birthdays except for online presence which thankfully has been a daily sitcom. Social media brought us destructive darkness, but also a lifeline of connection. So it is with all human powers. Everywhere, people found their ways to keep on.

I often think about the people who clean our water, repair our appliances, deliver our groceries to the stores, truck drivers and warehouses and loading docks and people who coordinate all of that movement. Highways are built by people we never meet. It is paid for by the rest of us and regulated by are law enforcement people. We have peered into our systems this year and learned that they are complex and vulnerable. Law enforcement, government and neighborhood have been tested to the limit. And nothing more than our vast system of healthcare and its heroic workers.

We have been through a year in which all of the ways that hold us safely together and on which we depend have come near to unraveling. And when things unravel, both the best and the worst that is in humans comes into view. We have been inspired, and we have been dismayed.

After forty-one years of fulltime ministry, my wife and I retired from fulltime professional ministry at the end of February. I include us both because ministry in a local church is “all hands on deck, all the time. So now I mark the beginning of the end of the pandemic with the beginning of a new chapter in my own life. I began my ministry at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church 27 1/2 years ago to a standing ovation in a crowded church on a July afternoon. I concluded my ministry of 41 years with a socially distanced room that was mostly empty, but still the most people I had spoken to other than funerals for a year. Perhaps it was fitting that it should end this way.

But like all that is best in the church, they found ways to celebrate a little at a time. They gave us a splendid and creative month of farewell. The leaders each week did things to say thank you and to send us out in a spirit of appreciation. We have also moved and are just about finished settling into our new place.  For three weeks we have been emptying out, downsizing, giving away, and reorganizing.

It is a fitting metaphor for this moment. During the past year, I preached for many months only to a camera and one cameraman while we sought to hold our community of faith together safely. The staff worked harder than it ever has, like every business, family, school and organization, to keep going.

I recognized, of course, that the world wasn’t simply going “back to normal.” The phrase “new normal” is a bit worn so I’ll pop in one from the world of family therapists: “neo-stasis.” Homeostasis is the term from the sciences about the biological balance of an organism.  When you live in a dysfunctional family, therapists say, sometimes it requires anxiety and disruption to move to a healthier place.

The old “normal” was not completely healthy anyway. No “used to be” ever was. Families, like cultures, are always struggling with their history, debts and obligations to one another. So are nations. We have a chance to renegotiate who we are going to be with one another and figure it out. As a Christian I would simply say that this renegotiation is going to involve proper grieving. And a lot of hard work toward real forgiveness and reconciliation. Some spectacular innovation has been forced upon us, and we will learn from it.

My calling moves to a new place. There are books to write, songs to sing, family tending to do. So, among other things, I am turning to a time of reflection and writing, and in this space over coming weeks and hopefully years, I will take some regular time to think back on a life given to ministry and spiritual truth. I hope I can live up to that. And my hope is that in looking back I might also do a little looking ahead in ways that help. As we return, oddly, to something new.

I’ll end today with a song from my last album, an old traditional piece, called “Hard Times, Come Again No More.”

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