“Anticipating the Kingdom”
Minister David Jones
It seems we have entered into a new phase of this very trying time. I remember when we first decided to close the church building; as difficult as that decision was to make spiritually, there was clarity about the need to be cautious. Now the word ‘caution’ doesn’t cut-it to really capture what we are experiencing. Something else is going on, something deeper; now our voices are becoming strained, our hope is a little less bright. ‘Frustration’ seems like a useful word; certainly we are frustrated. But ‘frustration’ is too regular a word; it doesn’t capture the particularity of the moment. I was wrestling with this a bit this week, finding myself coming more fully into contact with the congregation now that the intensity and demands of CPE and Holy Week are behind me. Then one of our Deacons sent me a link to a news story about a Chaplain working during this crisis at Baystate Medical Center. The Chaplain was my educator for the six months that came before this pandemic. And when she was asked to describe what she is seeing at the hospital, what she is processing with staff and patients--and with the limited number of visitors she is able to see right now--her answer helped something to fall into place for me.
Chaplain Schmidt said that all around us and on everyone’s heart is an increasingly acute “anticipatory grief,” or grief that comes before the loss, as the inescapability of loss begins to set-in. Humans are not built to experience this kind of grief so constantly the way we are being forced to experience it right now. Normally, anticipatory grief has a particular use, to help prepare us--to begin to allow our actual bodies to get a grip and stabilize--before a loss we know is coming. Anticipatory grief is an awful thing in so many ways because it forces us to begin to admit something that hasn’t actually happened yet. While our minds and hearts are hurrying to find a way out, to avoid the loss of a loved one, the physiological anticipatory grief undermines this effort, seeing more clearly and more deeply than our conscious minds can yet permit. We need this anticipatory grief period to allow us to endure the real thing, when that loss we have tried to stop or deny or bury deep below finally does overtake us. We’re not supposed to experience this in this generalized way. But here we are, all trying to carry on as usual, all trying to stop what is happening through sheer force of will; trying to be ‘cautious,’ becoming ‘frustrated,’ enduring restless nights with their bad dreams--all signs that what we will really need to do is grieve.
I’m not going to speak directly to the scriptures today. They speak for themselves. Psalm 23 is a balm we need right now. If you read it too quickly just now, I would encourage you to go back and read it again. Acts 2 is one of my favorite passages in all of scripture, a proof text that righteousness and joy consist in a communal life of grace and abundance, that the vaunted Kingdom is among us and within us, incarnated when we break bread together, when we dare to lighten up and loosen up. (I had a professor in seminary who said that Jesus is the Lord of festivals, of weddings; a patron of kicking back and having a good time--so long as everyone is invited to the party). Our Gospel reading reminds us how Jesus leads us to this good time, reminds us that we know to follow him because we recognize the sound of his voice; we trust him. We trust him because he loves us as we are, wayward though we might be at times; Jesus is ever the good shepherd. If there was ever a selection of scriptures that I love, that feeds me personally, this Sunday’s readings would be it.
But instead, I want to talk about anticipatory grief. Because as awful as it sounds, it is awful the way cough medicine is awful. Deciding to acknowledge it--to recognize that we need it--is the unlikely place where healing and then hope begins.
Anticipatory grief is not just a subconscious, physiological experience. Like the spirituality of our church, that bubbles up from our lived experiences, anticipatory grief makes its way into our hearts, with subtly and surprising grace. Before we are ready to admit the loss ahead, it alerts us to the urgent need to connect more deeply with our loved ones--or to reconnect as is so often the case--before it is too late. It has a way of bringing what is truly important into relief from the rest of life. We might think of the way the experience of anticipatory grief at the bedside of a loved one finds us unexpectedly expressing our forgiveness--or asking for forgiveness. Without the gravity of loss--without the shock of suddenly and literally sitting with life and death--these are not gestures of love we would normally feel comfortable with. They seem too earnest, too vulnerable, under normal circumstances. But these are not normal circumstances.
The generalized, uncertain anticipatory grief we are all experiencing is too much to sustain for the long months still ahead if we seek only to connect piecemeal, if we lean too much on trying to keep the waters of our church’s life artificially calm and placid. As important as finding ways to ‘maintain’ our church life are--to pray, worship, and reach decisions together as we normally would--there is also a need to embody our faith in fresh ways, to break through the limitations of the moment in startling ways. Ultimately, we need to connect as a community, because the scale of this pandemic is enormous. The only thing that can measure up to something of this scale are those earnest and vulnerable gestures now on the scale of community. Not idle community, not business as usual, but the community of daring to ask each other for forgiveness; the community of true relationship, of soul to soul witness and affirmation--the community described in Acts 2 that, realizing truly all things are held in common, we can break bread “with glad and generous hearts.”
The loss that our anticipatory grief is preparing for us is of course a loss of individuals, and that would be hard enough on its own. Already members of our congregation have lost dear friends, have worried terribly about family members, have had their own scares. But adding to this is something like the loss of our community--our community as we knew it--that we must come face-to-face with as well. Not the loss of our church building, which is on solid ground, which will be there for us to return to as soon as it is safe. Not even the loss of getting to see and hear our new organ, or the loss of singing together in our choir, or the loss of in-person Holy Communion; these will all be waiting for us, and will be more glorious than ever when they are renewed in our sanctuary when the time is right. Rather, it is the loss of thinking we have unlimited time, or that we have some control over life, or that things will unfold in some predictable and manageable manner--that idea of community is being lost to us all. We need to begin to come to terms with a community that has a much more urgent understanding of life and death; we need to come to terms with a faith and religion that, if it is to be fulfilled in this life at all, demands to be fulfilled today, before it is too late.
I do not have the answer for what this more urgent community will look like, what form it will take. We will figure that out together, in the coming weeks and months, and even years. In the meantime, I will be reading your letters and beginning to respond to them. I will be praying with you everyday. I will be picking up the phone and holding ‘virtual’ office hours. And together we will begin exploring ways to be more present to one another, while always bearing each other’s safety in mind. I think we each should do this. Let us worship together on Sunday, but let us also seek out the kinds of earnest and vulnerable gestures that our anticipatory grief is urging us toward. Because that’s what breaking bread is about, what community is about. No one goes hungry in the Kingdom of God, in body or spirit, because no one goes unseen, no one goes unrecognized; no one goes without love and affirmation. That Kingdom of God, as it has always been, is here among us, here within us--and it is here today.
Alleluia, and Amen.