+In the Name of God: who is full of compassion and mercy. Amen.
“Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.”Ephesians 5:8-14
During one of the rare moments of peace this past week – I was out walking the dog – I thought of a book I bought back in the early 1990’s called Migrations to Solitude: The Quest for Privacy in a Crowded World. I’m not sure why the book came to the forefront of my mind – maybe because I’m so fond of irony. What could be more ironic than the longing for solitude in a world where – suddenly – we have been placed in very real enforced solitude – or if not solitude, at least close confinement with our family members or housemates.
When I got to my office I checked to see if I’d brought the book with me to Chicago. There it was on the bookshelves in my office – right in the section of my library that might be called, “spiritual writings.”
Migrations to Solitude was written by Sue Halpern – a writer who currently lives near Middlebury, Vermont where, as her online bio puts it: she “introduces Middlebury College students to digital audio storytelling. . . .” is a “a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, and a major supporter of the ice cream industry.”
The book contains a series of short essays all connected to the search for privacy in a crowded world. Sue Halpern writes about life in a homeless shelter where a blue floral print curtain separates the sleeping area from the common lounge. She writes about going on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani – the Trappist monastery in Kentucky where Thomas Merton once lived. And she writes, poignantly, about the solitude of darkness, her grandfather’s solitude, which, as she says, was absolute.
Her grandfather went blind when he was 59. In Migrations to Solitude, Halpern includes an essay her grandfather had written called, “I Hate Institutions.” He wrote it shortly after he began working with the Lighthouse for the Blind in Manhattan. Here’s an excerpt:
My first day there, my wife brought me down from the Bronx, packing a two-sandwich lunch as the cafeteria was under construction. After inquiring where we were to report, I found myself in a large noisy room that contained a carpenter’s shop, noisy with power machines and noisier semi-blind adolescents, and a basket-weaving shop with blind men and women speaking in many different tongues, that to a neophyte like me sounded like the Tower of Babel. The instructor sat me at a bench between a . . . five-year-old blind boy and a man of about twenty-five who did not speak English, while I did not speak his language, so our conversations were held to a minimum. Now my twisting begins, making leather belts, rubber doormats, etc. This method must be all right, but did not appeal to me. When I remonstrated with the supervisor, I was told to be patient and cooperative.
Then it was time for lunch. I gathered up my sandwiches, which were lying on the bench all morning, and was ushered down to the cafeteria and was left on my own, stumbling, ailing, until I found an empty seat, unwrapped my lunch, and ate the sandwiches in silence, all the time feeling tears welling up in my eyes, I recall having seen such scenes in the movies, and now I was the leading actor and I did not relish the part. Since it only took me fifteen minutes to finish lunch, and having no one to talk to, I wandered out into the vestibule and asked someone to direct me to a phone booth. I called my wife, and as she was asking me about my activities I broke down and cried. To think that at fifty-nine years of age, having worked all my life, now to face a most difficult future at best. My wife, sensing my disappointment, wanted to come down and take me home, but I warned her off and told her it was a challenge and I was determined to go through with it. This testing went on for five weeks. I kept protesting until I was sent to typing class.
Sue Halpern finishes the story with this lovely touch, “The essay, which was sent to me by a relative who found it when she was cleaning out her desk, is typed.”
I wonder if the blind man in today’s Gospel lesson felt the same sense of isolation and despair as the grandfather who typed his poignant chronicle. I suspect he did.The blind man’s situation was, of course, different from that of Ms. Halpern’s grandfather. The blind man in today’s Gospel was born blind – he hadn’t seen the light of day for a single moment of his life.
One of my first-year college roommates had been blind from the very beginning of his life, too. Back in 1952, the year we were both born, premature babies were sometimes put in incubators with 100% oxygen. The oxygen-only environment wreaked havoc with the tiny capillaries in the back of the babies’ eyes, and many were unintentionally blinded. Andy was one of them.
Darkness and light were foreign concepts to Andy – it was all darkness for him. Unlike someone who once had been able to see and then later became blind, he had no visual memories at all. The same must have been true of the man whom Jesus saw as he walked along – the man blind from birth. No frame of reference – no visual memories. He was isolated from people because he could not see. He was isolated from people because, in a very real sense, he didn’t share their world. And he was isolated from people because of the belief, common at the time, that his misfortune was the result of sin.
People undoubtedly steered clear of him to avoid contagion. Even the blind man’s parents kept him at arm’s length. When the Pharisees called them in to question them about how it was that he could see now, they said, in so many words, “We don’t want to get involved. Yes, he was born blind. But we don’t know how he came to see – we haven’t got a clue about who opened his eyes. Why don’t you ask him?”
I hope I’m not being harsh when I wonder how involved the blind man’s parents had been in his life before being subpoenaed as witnesses by the Pharisees. The blind man eked out a meager living by begging, which indicates to me that he wasn’t being financially supported by his parents. Even his relatives and neighbors appear to have stayed away from him year after year as he sat alone rattling the change in his cup. Talk about isolated!
Isolation. Does this sound at all familiar? It sure does to me.
Social distancing is nothing new – even if the reasons for it have changed. People used to stay away from others to avoid becoming ritually unclean. Now we stay six feet away from each other to avoid being infected by the coronavirus.
If we are honest with ourselves, at least some of us have practiced social distancing for a long time – telling people who are different from us, “Don’t stand so close to me. . . Keep your distance. . . . stay away!” We can all think of a politician or two who has used a variation of the social distancing theme to divide the electorate, to fire up the base, and, ultimately, to get elected Whatever the reasons for people to keep their distance from each other, the result is the same: isolation, fear, loneliness, even despair.
I don’t agree at all with the Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis, who wrote a commentary this past week asking whether taking such drastic actions to combat the pandemic might not be a “fiasco in the making.” But a part of what he said was worth paying attention to. It was a grim reminder of what happens when we humans, whose evolutionary success is inextricably tied to the fact that we are social beings, lose our connection with one another.
He asked provocatively: Should we “Put a stall to the entire economy. Tell people to stay at their homes, get depressed, commit suicide, domestic violence. Who knows? Child abuse, children losing their education, companies crashing … unemployment, the stock market already dropping 20 per cent. Is that the solution?”
I get his point. There are downsides to stay-at-home orders, to sheltering-in-place. Minimizing the impact of the downsides is our job of Christians, even as we understand and support the restrictions that have been imposed. You haven’t been able to be in church. The four of us who, yesterday, planned to be together in the church today to broadcast the weekly live-streamed service can’t be there either.
But. . . Even as we grieve the loss of being physically close to each other, we must not lose our connection with one another. Those of us who are blessed to belong to the All Saints’ community know that being a part of this church community is never something we do just for its own sake. That’s not a church; that’s a club. All Saints’ is here to be a light in the darkness for others – to shine in the midst of every kind of darkness – especially in this coronavirus darkness.
That’s what the Gospel story of the man born blind reminds us – that Jesus is alive and continues to bring light into every dark place. And that’s what St. Paul was saying when he wrote to the Ephesians during a time that was every bit as dark as our own: “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.”
The Christians of All Saints’ Chicago know how to be “light in the Lord.” We know that the fruit of the Light is found in what is good and right and true. And I know that every one of us will find our own ways to shine Christ’s light into the darkness of this time, and to do what is good and right and true.
I hesitate to suggest what these things might be for you, but here are a couple of reminders if you need them:
First, take care of yourself – Jesus would say, ‘love yourself.” Flight attendants tell us to put our own oxygen masks on first when they drop from the overhead compartments before we help others. We can’t do anything to help another person if we aren’t all right.
Each of us needs to pay attention to the hierarchy that Abraham Maslow taught us: food, water, warmth, rest – come first. Then security and safety. Then, after these are met – and only then – do our needs turn to belongingness and love. We learned this in Psychology 101.
Once all of these needs are met, we are able love our neighbors as ourselves – making sure that others who need food, water, warmth, rest; safety and security; get them. Our concern for others comes from Jesus, of course, not Abraham Maslow.
Blessedly, most of us have our basic needs met even now. We must remember those who do not and figure out how we are going to meet them.
Many of us contributed to Ravenswood Community Services – RCS – so they can meet the needs of our neighbors in the coming weeks. Those needs will only grow for all the reasons we can imagine.
Many of you are praying Morning Prayer with Andrew Rutledge Monday through Friday at 8:30 am. Others of you have been part of prayer groups, prayer chains, or prayer warriors for a long time and are praying with them now with renewed intensity. Whatever you do, keep on praying. We’ve posted some resources if you need them. There are thousands available online. Of course, there’s our old friend, The Book of Common Prayer.
And, if you want to help respond to issues of justice (which is love in action), please consider attending United Power’s Zoom meeting tomorrow night from 8:00 – 9:00 pm. I can get you information about joining the call, or Elizabeth Moriarity can. COVID-19 has not stopped the need to advocate for others – only the organizing methods have changed.
Knowing the members of this congregation, you will immediately think of many other ways to be Light. However you chose to act, do something, for Christ’s sake!
I miss you all. I miss my staff colleagues – Andrew Freeman, whose technical wizardry makes so many things possible – Colin Colette, to whom I apologize for today’s music (my playing not Terry’s singing), and Andrew Rutledge, my brother priest and All Saints’ Chicago’s newest TV star.
When we get through this time, and we will, someone, someday, will find a letter from us that tells them about this dark time, and how we were sent to typing class in the midst of it. The letter – as you undoubtedly know already – will be typed. Amen.