One year ago this March we left our building at 6300 A Street, to ‘flatten the curve to buy time for our health care workers to respond to the pandemic.’ At the time it felt like a dramatic, short term step to get ahead of a pandemic that was rapidly escalating. While announcing that we were closing our building, I went back to the long history of this congregation, which has survived and prospered through pandemics, world wards, economic depressions, and civil unrest in the past. As we began this leap into the unknown, those stories of commitment felt prescient.
I do not know that any of us would have predicted, then, what we know now: that this pandemic would last for over a year, and that online worship would become the default for a time. That in March of 2021, we would still be out of our building, but starting to plan a return as the first members of our community began to be vaccinated.
This has been a year of many experiments, many new ways of trying things both out of opportunity and necessity. One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13, which tells the story of the 1976 moon landing mission that had to be waved off, mid-flight, after an explosion on the spacecraft. There is a scene in the movie when engineers at NASA have to figure out how to fit a round air scrubber into a square hole, using nothing but the materials on hand on the spacecraft: much of congregational life in the last year has felt like that. From the first frantic months trying to figure out how to fit the square peg of worship into the round hole of the internet, to the worry about scarce resources, to the long wait before coming back home, there’s a lot in the story that resonates with the last 12 months of congregational life.
On one hand, Apollo 13 is a sad story, a film about a triumph missed, and opportunity that slipped by in the aftermath of catastrophe- but that is not how the story is usually told. The story instead is one about ingenuity, courage, commitment, and support.
As we mark one year since leaving our building at 6300 A St, I wonder what the story we will tell about this year will be? Will we tell the sad story, of how we were apart for a year? Or will we tell the story of commitment even in the midst of pandemic? We will remember this season for the rest of our lives. How will we commemorate it? And is it possible that we come out of it with a renewed sense of commitment to each other and our faith?
The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice. It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.
-Rev. Mark Morrison Reed
Our covenant, as a welcoming congregation, is to inspire a sense of awe, joy and reverence in people of all ages. We celebrate through words, music and the arts. We actively model an inclusive, diverse, and sustainable community. We each contribute to the work of the church. We provide a safe and nurturing haven for free thought. We treat each other with loving kindness. We cultivate growth and celebrate the changes growth brings.
-Unitarian Church of Lincoln Covenant
Our theme for the month of February is Beloved Community. Beloved Community is a constant presence in our worship liturgy and preaching- it is a touchstone as common as ‘worth and dignity’ or ‘interconnected.’ It is often implicit: it is the goal described by our congregational covenant. When we live into the hope of an ‘inclusive, diverse, and sustainable community,’ we are creating a kind of Beloved Community here in Lincoln Nebraska.
The work does not stop with our congregation. Beloved Community, theologically, is both eschatology (the goal we are moving toward) and ecclesiology (what the church is). In traditional Christianity, the organized church is often described as a ‘sign and foretaste’ of the Kingdom of God: while the Kingdom is not here yet, we can taste part of it through participation in the church.
For us, our work to create Beloved Community is a ‘sign and foretaste’ of what we want to help create in the world. The vision statement of the church calls us to ‘transform ourselves and the world,’ extending the community we create here to be an example for the world.
This month we will talk in worship about a few of the ways we’re doing that, including our participation in the Beloved Conversations program through Meadville Lombard, and renewing our status as an LGBTQIA+ Welcoming Conversation. These are very practical programs, but it is through practice that we turn theology into lived experience.
"Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
I first hear Arundhati Roy’s voice in my parent’s kitchen, almost twenty years ago. She was an early and clear voice for peace in the run up to the war in Iraq, and my mother ordered a CD of one of Roy’s speech’s.
In 2003, Arundhati Roy made the same point she makes today: the way we have lived in the past does not need to be how we live in the future. We have the capacity to imagine different ways of being, and then live into them. There are big things we might imagine: a world that rises to the challenge of pandemics and climate change, or a country that comes to terms with our history of oppression and violence.
There are also opportunities to imagine new ways of being on a more intimate scale. In October, my parents moved from their home in upstate New York to live with me and Stacie in Nebraska. For the last two months, we have been living as a pod of five people, each of the four adults taking turns with the toddler as the other three work remotely. As an experiment in living during pandemic it has been a significant practical success- as a time to imagine what it means to live in a multigenerational household, it has been revelatory.
In January, my mother needs to return to New York for a surgery that is straightforward but time sensitive. Rather than rethink how we are living through the pandemic or put Ailish back in daycare before we are ready, Stacie and I will travel with my parents to New York for six to eight weeks, starting in early January. This is possible because we are temporarily a fully remote church- indeed after working through the options for some time it was apparent that this is the option that is least disruptive to my ministry. I lay this out in more detail in my daily video update from December 21, 2020, available here: https://youtu.be/umCcgaNyt3A.
Our family will return to Lincoln some time in March, and we cannot wait to gather in person with all of you at the church. In the meantime, take some time to imagine. What are the ways that we will be together? What is the world that we can imagine together?
Be at peace, beloveds,
Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope--
…Nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of
“Everything is gonna’ be all right.”
But a different, sometimes lonely place,
The place of truth-telling,
About your own soul first of all and its condition.
The place of resistance and defiance,
The piece of ground from which you see the world
Both as it is and as it could be
As it will be;…
-Rev. Victoria Safford, “The Gates of Hope.”
Pandemics end. “The end may be near for the pestilence that has haunted the world this year. Good news is arriving on almost every front: treatments, vaccines, and our understanding of this coronavirus,” Zeynep Tufeki writes in The Atlantic. We now know not just that pandemics end, but how this pandemic will end. And: “We have reasons to celebrate, but—and you knew there was a but—a devastating surge is now under way. And worse, we are entering this dreadful period without the kind of leadership or preparation we need, and with baseline numbers that will make it difficult to avoid a dramatic rise in hospitalizations, deaths, and potential long-term effects on survivors.”
This moment, when as we see both the end of the pandemic on the horizon and the sharp increases in infections in Lincoln, is a fraught one. As we go into the holiday season, the danger from COVID-19 has never been higher. At the time of writing, Lincoln is closing in on 2,000 cases a week- an order of magnitude higher than two earlier surges in the spring and fall. Because I live with a significant immune condition, last week Stacie and I made the difficult decision to pull Ailish out of daycare and care for her at home until the case rate falls.
Our priority as a church is the safety of our members. Because of this, we will remain fully online over the holidays. I know this is difficult- December is a month of traditions, and we are working to turn beloved in-person experiences (Christmas Eve, Stranger Share our Fire, the SoUUper Supper) into online formats.
But the good news is this: There are likely fewer pandemic days ahead of us than behind us. There is significant good news about potential vaccines, and treatments. The next months will be critical to our community, but we are not asked to make an open-ended sacrifice. In a daily update last week, I put it this way: If the pandemic were a baseball game, we are now in the 7th inning. While we are getting nearer to the end, as an Orioles fan, I can tell you with some authority that many, many baseball games are lost in the 9th inning.
This is the time where the world as it is and the world as it could be are in flux. The world will be different six months from now. What that world will look like, and how we remember the winter before we got a vaccine, depends on our actions today.