Heal the World
Rev. Douglas Taylor and Trebbe Johnson
DOUGLAS: I begin memorial services with words that essentially say we are here to mourn a loss and celebrate a life. We gather in both grief and gratitude. This morning I say this to us as well. We gather in grief and gratitude for this past years’ worth of plague. It has been one year since the first death attributable to CoVid-19, a man in the Wuhan province of China. Since then, over 1.9 million people around this world have died from this plague. We are likely to hit the 2 million mark before the end of this month, possibly within the coming week. It has been a year, and the illness continues to spread.
In the United States alone, we are adding 2k to 3k deaths to that total each day; we approach the 400,000 mark as a nation. And yet, we’ve recently experienced a turning point in the politics of our country. We have vaccines beginning to be distributed, indeed a few members of the congregation have received their first dose. Better days are coming. But we are still in the thick of it.
So we gather this morning in mourning. We gather in grief for what has been lost and in gratitude for the great turning we are experiencing. On balance, there is much for which we can be grateful. But before we tumble too quickly into that sigh of relief, let us pause together to acknowledge our losses and our grief. This has been a rough year.
As Trebbe shared in the announcements, her organization Radical Joy for Hard Times is hosting a Global Day of Mourning to commemorate a year since the first death attributable to CoVid-19. In connection with that, I’ve invited Trebbe to share this sermon with me as a conversation. We will take turns asking each other questions over the next few minutes, circling around this theme of grief and gratitude in the pandemic.
TREBBE: This topic has been on my heart for a while now, and I am so glad to be a part of this conversation. I want to start with a question to you first:
Douglas, what’s it been like to be a minister during the pandemic? What about the challenges of Sunday services online? What about pastoral care? Did you give memorials or weddings or naming ceremonies that couldn’t be done or had to be done in some other way? And all this while we are creating a new building!
DOUGLAS: On March 22nd we held our first 100% online streaming worship service. I titled that sermon “How to Stay in Touch without Touching.” I reminded us on that Sunday morning back in the spring that our core as a faith community is not found in a shared belief but in shared values. One deep value that is like a golden thread for us is the value of connection. And this pandemic has hit us right at the heart of who we are a faith community together. I also reminded us of an African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” And I encouraged us to slow down that we might go together and go far.
Since that time, I have struggled with some aspects of this ministry in a pandemic. I was initially thrown by the difficulty of preaching when everyone is on mute and my screen is focused on the manuscript rather than your faces. It has felt like preaching into the void. It helps to imagine you all listening. It has grown easier with practice.
The other significant challenge has been not being able to visit the sick and people in nursing homes. I have relied on a ministry of presence and have struggled with how to keep connected with people who are in nursing homes and under COVID-19 restrictions.
On top of that, this pandemic reactivated my depression – which, as I talked about last month, tends to lead be into believing the worst about myself and my capabilities as a minister.
By the fall, most of that was under better control. I was on medication, I was more familiar with the ways we could use Zoom in worship, and I discovered many of you were also reaching out to each other – keeping in touch in this time of no touching.
You asked, Trebbe, about rites of passage and I note that the very last event we held in person at the Presbyterian building was the memorial service for Heda Libby on March 15th. I have officiated at other graveside and funeral services as well as an outdoor wedding since then, and each has been strained by the difficulties of the pandemic, each has been adjusted or modified to allow for some of that we need to do while allowing for the reality of health and safety precautions. None of us are untouched by this pandemic.
Trebbe, what challenges have you faced over this pandemic, what losses and changes in your work have occurred?
TREBBE: The biggest loss for me, of course, was that my beloved Andy, my husband died. He didn’t die of COVID, but of advanced liver cancer, which was diagnosed just five days before he died. I am grateful beyond words that I was able to stay at the hospice facility with him, to do ceremony with him, and talk about what it meant to him to die. And he went without regret, remorse, bitterness, or anger. He was ready, and that was quite beautiful. I was holding his hand when he took his last breath.
To be perfectly honest, there have been many times during this pandemic when I’ve also been grateful that I’m a natural loner, an introvert. I think it’s been much easier to be isolated than it has for those who are extroverts and depend on the company of others for their energy. But I must say I have missed physical contact a lot, especially after Andy’s death, although I still talk to one or two friends on Zoom or on the phone every day even now, five months later.
Because I’ve been thinking and writing for decades about the relationship between grief and beauty and joy, I think this pandemic has expanded my sense of compassion. I often feel like the stories of countless others are kind of hovering in a place in my consciousness that is somewhere between imagination and memory. The combination of my grief over Andy’s death and that widening sense of the suffering of others is what prompted me to create a Global Day of Mourning.
Douglas, tell me, what does it mean to you to grieve?
DOUGLAS: Growing up in an alcoholic home, strong emotions were frowned upon, anger and sadness were like weakness in some ways – at least that was the unspoken message I’d picked up. So I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life figuring out how to be appropriately angry or healthfully sad. One clue I keep returning to over the years is that such emotions are rooted in love and fear.
“Sorrow comes where love abides” is a phrase I say in the benediction of most memorial services. Our grief is borne of our love, and sometimes of our fear that the love is gone, never to return. To grieve is to allow yourself to feel the loss. Grief is a consequence of love. And love, really, is what this whole human experience is about.
Trebbe, why would we want to set aside a day to mourn? Wouldn’t it be better to try to get over it and focus on positive things?
TREBBE: I love this question! First of all, it means to get real. It means to allow ourselves to feel the pain in our hearts and express it. I think something that often happens is that people feel like they should be controlling their own suffering because they presume that someone else is suffering more acutely. Someone apologized to me for grieving the death of her cat when I was grieving the death of my husband. I said, “No! Your cat died! That’s your sad reality right now!” There is a great effort, especially in this country, with our image of relentless positivity, to “get beyond” suffering, to “put it behind us.” And what happens is that we do that, or attempt to do it, without facing it our sorrow in the first place! How can you put something behind you if you haven’t faced it?
So we have to face the sorrow, whatever it’s about—the death of a loved one, your inability to see your new grandchild at Christmas, your extremely confusing and isolating first year of college. We have to accept the reality of sadness and cry over it. Since Andy died, I cry whenever I have to, sometimes with others, sometimes alone. In the beginning, that crying was like having something absolutely wrenched out of me, like being flayed, it was so painful. But then, every time, what happens is, we cry and the crying itself seems to heal something. I often have had the feeling that the grief itself is pushing me back out of its own dark well, back into the light.
And that brings me to another understanding of what it means to grieve. It also means not staying there in that deep well beyond the necessary time! That doesn’t mean, in my experience, that you go through a certain number of weeks or months and then you start feeling better. It means you step in and out of deep grief daily. And I believe in experiencing both the dark and the light fully. When we’re in the well of grief, we need to just cry. And then, when it’s over, we need to look around and say, What’s calling me now? What’s beautiful? How can I contribute? How can I live with as much passion and commitment and intention as possible?
Douglas—when you consider ways to grieve, what comes to you? Are some ways of grieving better, or healthier, or more likely to lead to healing than others?
DOUGLAS: A few weeks back we had a Sunday service with a pre-recorded sermon from Rabbi Sharon Brous. In that sermon, the rabbi talked about three movements we should go through as we move through difficult times. First we should grieve, she said. What follows is a capacity to speak truth and our ability to build a new future. This is a powerful blueprint the Rabbi offers us, for national and global change as well as how to navigate the personal losses of our lives.
You ask if there are some ways of grieving that are better or healthier than others – to which I refer back to this blueprint. Does your grief allow you to then speak truth or does it bid you to hide and be ashamed of what has occurred? Does your grief allow you to imagine a better day ahead?
Nationally, I think our communal grief response to the coronavirus has not been healthy or productive because it has not led us to speak a communal truth about it. Too many lies have been allowed to flourish in the shadows of our loss and pain. There has been little to no acknowledgement by our government of the losses due to the plague. I believe our government is the body that could rightly lead us into a national communal recognition of this experience and a conversation of how we can move through and beyond this experience together.
This is an experience the whole world is having, that our country is sadly amplifying. We should be able to mourn the daily loss that is rolling over us! The fruit of healthy grieving is the ability to speak truth and to build a new future in the days and weeks to come. Grief is not easy. But it is extremely valuable.
Trebbe how we can do more than cope with heartaches and difficulty, how can we thrive?
TREBBE: To go back to what I said before, we have to begin coping with heartache and difficulty by admitting we’re in heartache and difficulty. We have to reach out to others—by phone, by Zoom, in person, whatever is possible—and honestly express what we’re going through.
And then we have to remember, in that same context, that same conversation or Zoom call, that others have lives too, and heartache, and hard times. Opening up to the world of others expands our own world.
It’s also very important to find life, beauty, and meaning wherever we can. I’ll tell you a story. Less than an hour after Andy died, I had packed up our things at the hospice facility and was taking the first load out to my car. It was nearly midnight. When I stepped outside the air-conditioned building, I was astonished to hear the songs of katydids in an immense chorus in the woods and even on the other side of the road. I just put down my bags and stood there listening for a minute. I was infused with the extraordinary brilliance and perseverance of life, even at that most horrible time. Nature, the kindness and human sweetness of other people, something you read—every day the world is waiting to invite us in to the wondrous and beautiful, and we can say Yes to those invitations, even in the hardest, most anguishing moments of our life.
And finally, I’d say that thriving and not just coping means listening closely to our own inner voices and how they compel us to respond to life. There are opportunities every day, many of them, not just to receive that kindness and beauty but to give it. To say thank you to the person working in a supermarket, to tell your friend something you really appreciate about them, to volunteer for a cause you believe in, to pick up litter on the street. Rumi says, “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” There are also a thousand ways to give beauty, and we can do that no matter what we’re going through personally.
DOUGLAS: Trebbe, thank you for sharing this time with me. We have revealed together some deep and salient points as we each work to heal the world along with our own hearts this day.
It is time now, it is time now that we thrive
It is time we lead ourselves into the well
It is time now, and what a time to be alive
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love (from MaMuse)
May this hour open for us all a window through our grief and loss into the depth of human care and connection. May love continue to lead us into the ways of truth and grace.
In a world without end, may it be so.