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Pandemic shows how connected we all are, ‘in ways that are terrifying and beautiful’

Photo by Tom Rivers: The Rev. Tom Gardner, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Holley, leads a special service on July 14 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the church.

Posted 27 March 2020 at 9:13 am

(Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing “Pandemic Perspectives” series, with people sharing how they are coping with life during the coronavirus pandemic. We welcome more submissions. Send them to news@orleanshub.com.)

By Tom Gardner

HOLLEY – Lynn Unger begins her poem Pandemic, “What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath – the most sacred of times?” I sent this poem to members of our congregation. It contains the best advice I have read or heard about how to come to terms with the coronavirus COVID-19.

I’ve given quite a bit of thought to this question over the course of the last couple weeks. It has helped me to see this whole thing from a different perspective. Not that I’m unfamiliar with things sacred nor are you. I believe we all have some experience we can draw on that will help us to understand what she is getting at when she speaks of sacred times.

She answers this question listing a few ways the Sabbath is lived and honored and holy. She repeats the phrase “give up” a clue to the direction of her thoughts. One such way she writes is to, “Give up, just for now, on trying to make the world different than it is.”

I believe it’s time to step back from wherever we have landed and take advantage of the limitations now placed on us. What form it takes is up to each one of us. Some of us have been laid-off, most of us are working from home, as many are homeschooling. The threat is real. Can we find the sacred anywhere in the changes required of us?  I like to read, to listen to classical music and walk when the weather permits. God, I believe, is present in all three.

I let our cat Werner out one morning last week a bit envious. He has the run of the yard, not a worry in the world. Seeing him skirt across the yard, running and jumping almost sideways as cats do, brought such unexpected joy – a sure sign of the first days of spring.

People of faith go to their sacred scriptures for comfort during a crisis. I’m all for doing so. There is great comfort in the words “fear not” or” be not afraid.”

We also turn to each other. We gather as families, friends and faith communities to help and support each other though troubled times. We look to the life experience of elders and others we respect for guidance and leadership. Today, this all happens online, in an email or text, over the phone or six feet from each other.

Unger reminds us “that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful. Know that our lives are in one another’s hands.” I talked with a friend earlier in the week. She has a health condition that puts her in the “at risk” category yet she is planning an outdoor visit with her mother who she hasn’t seen in several weeks.

I think most of us are familiar with the idea that less is more. Maybe that is what Unger is getting at. I pastor a small church in Holley – First Presbyterian. We have 50 members and plenty of pew space on Sunday mornings available for anyone interested. I’ve been the pastor for 11 years and our numbers continue to decline. But, here’s the thing. The smaller we get the better we are able to listen to the Spirit. The more we take to heart and say to ourselves – this is who we are.

We’ve recently taken on a mission project – building a school in remote area of Nicaragua for 50 children – when most weeks we struggle to cover our costs. This as it turns out is our antidote to COVID-19.

Lynn Unger’s poem is available online. I hope you take a minute and track it down.  She ends this way, “Reach out with your hearts. Reach out with all the tendrils of compassion. Promise this world your love.”

(Tom Gardner is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Holley.)