Sermon #42 (26th July 2020 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
You don’t need me to tell you this but: we’re living in strange times, aren’t we? Every life includes some – many – unexpected and often unwanted events. In a way, that is normality, for life to not quite go as we expected, or hoped. But over the last few months many of our lives have been turned upside down.
This time of pandemic we find ourselves in has surely left no life entirely untouched (even if it hasn’t yet hit us close to home). The impact of this virus is being felt in many ways: Many of us have seen our future plans (both short- and long-term) evaporate overnight. Some have lost their lives. Others have lost loved ones. Many have suffered debilitating health problems (and the long-term effects of the virus are not yet fully known). Many have lost jobs and security – whole industries are in suspended animation – with no sense of how long it will last and what will survive on the far side. Some have been stuck at home for months now, shielding, due to underlying health conditions, and have no idea when it will be truly safe for them to emerge. Even for those who do feel able to get out and about (in a socially distanced way) – social lives, love lives, family lives, many of our opportunities to pursue life’s passions – all these things that are central to human flourishing have been interrupted – and our collective wellbeing, our mental and physical health, is suffering.
Our lives have been disrupted in innumerable ways. It’s been a cascade of loss. (and, of course, there’s no shortage of loss in the average life anyway; many of life’s losses that would have been happening anyway, without Covid-19, haven’t just gone away). Everywhere you look, people are grieving, and often they’re – we’re – not even aware of it. This is something I wanted us to stop and acknowledge together in this morning’s service. It seems important, to me, that we face all this loss – and name it – and the grief that results.
Lots has been written over the years about the ‘Stages of Grief’ – a model that’s most associated with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross – and which has been critiqued and adapted a bit by others over the years. As I understand it these are phases which we might expect to go through, emotionally, in response to any sort of loss, but not in a particularly linear way. As we grapple with loss – and particularly when we’re dealing with an avalanche of losses –
we might well loop through the various stages, or linger in one for longer, and double back. Originally the ‘Five Stages’ were ‘denial’, ‘anger’, ‘bargaining’, ‘depression’ and ‘acceptance.’ Since then others have added ‘shock’, ‘testing’ and ‘making meaning’ as additional stages.
Shock. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Testing. Acceptance. Meaning-Making.
I think I’ve seen most of those grief-responses in myself, and in many of those around me, over the last four or five months, as we’ve all been affected by one loss after the other. Even those who are relatively lucky – who are in good health, and financially secure, who were safe in lockdown with ones they love, or who relished the time of solitude – even those people have had to adjust to an incredible amount of uncertainty and change this year (and we’re not done yet; not by a long chalk). For all but the most oblivious, it’s hard going. And something that’s become increasingly apparent to me as the weeks pass is that, at any given moment, we’re all likely to be in different places in those ‘Stages of Grief’ (and going round the cycle again as new waves of loss come along to knock us off balance).
If some are in ‘acceptance’ or ‘meaning-making’, while others are in ‘denial’ or ‘anger’, it can lead to clashes, or at least some quite uncomfortable conversations between us. Everybody’s seeing the situation somewhat differently, making different risk assessments, and these emotional states influence our decisions at least as much as any rational factors do. Yet all these judgements we make individually have an impact on everybody else – that’s always been true, of course – but our interconnectedness has never been more apparent. As lockdown eases, and we are largely being left to our own devices, to come to our own conclusions about what’s safe-enough, these differences in outlook may be hard to navigate. Perhaps an awareness, a keeping-in-mind, of the loss and grief that we’re all going through – particularly an awareness of where we are in those stages of grief in any given moment – might help us to be a bit wiser, and more compassionate, towards ourselves and others alike.
Covid-19 is a global catastrophe which has, already, brought huge turmoil, suffering and loss. We’re in a situation that none of us would have chosen – it is clearly a bad thing. And yet. In throwing everything up in the air it has, perhaps, caused some constructive disruption too. In many spheres of life, it seems, customs and practices that we thought could never change – “the way we’ve always done things” – has had to be chucked out of the window overnight. Of course in some cases this has been distressing, even traumatic. But in others, it’s liberating.
We’ve had to adapt incredibly fast as individuals, communities, institutions, and societies. And some have done so more successfully than others, for various reasons, perhaps often to do with the degree of support and resources that has been made available to facilitate such change. There’s a lot of inertia, it seems, in human systems. Once we get set up to do things a certain way, as long as it works well-enough, then we’re often at full stretch just keeping plates spinning. There might be a better way of doing things just-over-the-horizon but we never seem to have the spare capacity to reach for it, to experiment, because we’ve got to keep the show on the road.
I’ll say it again: Covid-19, obviously, is a catastrophe, and a situation we would not have chosen. Yet here we are. And this moment, terrible as it is, could present us with opportunities for transformation, and liberation, as individuals, communities, and societies. It could be showing us that we have a shot at the sort of collective change we might’ve thought impossible. It could just give us the sort of kick up the bum which we could use to spur ourselves into action.
The very fact that we’re gathered on Zoom this morning is an example of this. In a relatively short period of time we’ve switched to meeting online. Now, I know, for many if not most of us this is ‘not as good as the real thing’. But for some – including some here today, I’m sure – this form of gathering has enabled participation in a Unitarian community where it just wasn’t possible at all before. Since the start of lockdown I’ve been running our Heart and Soul spiritual gatherings online. Well over 100 people have taken part so far. In doing this I’ve heard from people all over the world who were geographically isolated, or chronically ill, or just overwhelmed with life’s demands, or too anxious or shy to come in person – and now they’re able to join us. Even amongst those of us who regularly met in person at the church in Kensington – I’d say some of our online gatherings have unexpectedly enabled deeper bonds to form. These are good things that we might never have got round to – or at least not for a long while – without everything being turned on its head by Covid-19. And I sincerely hope that we’ll continue to offer a lot of these online offerings, even when it is safe for us to meet again.
These new ways of ‘doing church’ are unexpected gifts that have come out of catastrophe. Think about our purpose as a community. It isn’t really ‘to gather for an hour on Sundays at 11am in a certain building on Palace Gardens Terrace’ (as much as we love doing that). Our purpose is something more like ‘to build a better world’ or ‘the kingdom of heaven’ or ‘a vision of love and justice’ – and there are a lot of different ways in which we can go about that – both now while we’re scattered and in the future when we’re able to meet up again. In a way these terrible times have liberated us to think differently about what we’re here for and realise that we don’t have to do it in exactly the way we’ve always done it in the past.
And maybe you’re considering some of the same questions in your own individual lives too. The future isn’t going to be as we expected, imagined, or hoped – but HERE WE ARE – so now what? For now, at least, we are STILL HERE – so what is required of us? Perhaps a certain responsiveness, adaptability, agility in the face of uncertainty and disruption. [This doesn’t come naturally to me, I’m slow to change, and to grieve the losses it entails.] We don’t know what’s next but – as we’re still here – we might have the power to shape it. And until we let go of – or at least loosen our grip on – “wanting our old lives back” I reckon it will be hard for us to reach out for the new life and new possibilities that still await us.
As David Blanchard noted at the end of his piece, ‘The Vase’, which Jeannene read earlier: “From an unwanted event came an invitation to freedom. It doesn’t always work that way, but this story is a reminder that it’s possible. It’s possible for disappointment to open doors we had previously been afraid to enter.”
In the face of all these unexpected and unwelcome losses, we need to grieve and lament – and we need to know that’s not a one-time thing but a cycle we’ll go round again and again – ultimately there may come a time when we accept the reality of the situation we find ourselves in (although it’s not what we thought we signed up for, this is how it’s going to be for the long haul, we’re not going to go “back to normal”, and we need to find a new way onward as best we can).
In this potentially transformative moment, let us cultivate awareness of what’s still good in the now, what we can be grateful for, and build on – and look ahead, with hope and purpose, towards a vision of what’s still possible – the chance we have to help bring about the better world that we dream of.
On the other side of all this loss, just waiting, there may yet be a liberation. May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.
Sermon by Jane Blackall
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