I. Our streets are not quite as empty as they used to be—they bustle with a little more traffic now.
But the intersections look abandoned, buses are largely empty, the trolleys going past our window at home are empty. A feeling of desolation has overcome the city. People are being taken from their homes to hospitals by the Covid virus, and some do not return. All this happens in isolation—there is no one to hold your hand in sickness or in death.
The author of the Lamentations wrote, “How deserted lies the city, once thronging with people!” The book of Lamentations in the Old Testament, a six-chapter book of uninterrupted weeping, was written in the aftermath of the conquest of Israel (in 536 BCE) by the Babylonian empire. The city was destroyed and the population was marched away into exile after the invaders stripped Jerusalem. Like the Israelites, we have lost the city we knew and what cities are known for—commence and culture, congestion and conflict, convivial gatherings with food and drink, excitement, here, there, hither and yon. It is quite gone.
The result? “Once great among the nations, [the city has] now become a widow; once queen among the provinces, now put to forced labor.” In Lamentations, God is silent. The Temple was destroyed, and no Word of comfort from God went forth.
At the very same time, we are also witnessing at long distance the horror of the West Coast fires. In Washington, Oregon, and California, by the tens of thousands, people’s homes are being taken from them—and entire communities, churches and all. The biblical fire next time is knocking on our door today.
I could go on. As one Eliot member put it, “There’s too much, I just don’t know what to do. . . not know where to send my money, what cause to support and how. . . .”
Consider Jerusalem, without its houses of worship, what would any city like Jerusalem be? If people can’t go inside to sing, pray and be inspired, where will they find comfort? And consider ourselves, unlike Jerusalem, we still have our synagogues and mosques and churches. And our congregation is intact, however dispersed we may be.
How do we feel about this? Do we know? Have we consulted ourselves? How does the city feel, its denizens, its citizens? Where would you find that out? Among all the big problems of this our poor old planet, could the biggest one be that we don’t know the grief we feel about these very big problems?
The Psalmist of lamentations continues—“She weeps bitterly in the night, tears run down her cheeks.” At least she knows what she feels. Have we come to tears yet, do we cry? I know we want to—I certainly do! We get as far as feeling anxious, disoriented. . . Our souls are grieving through this onslaught, hardly knowing it. And if we do know it, do we remotely understand what our sadness is about—what is the loss that causes our sadness? Unwitting, we live with fires of our own, like peat bog fires, way in the underground of our souls.
Maybe the children show it better than we do—petulance, opposition, maybe tantrums. Likely as not, some adults experience similar outbursts. Grief is insidious. If not expressed, it undermines the will, saps our strength, it depletes our core.
For individual grief, normally, we have funerals, we have intimates with whom to share, we have counselors, although not now. And what do we have for national grief? Who attends to that? Societies eventually respond and build some memorial years later—Holocaust memorials, the Vietnam Memorial, 9/11 in NYC—they have become destinations where we can cry, later. Our spirits need tending now, and this pandemic isn’t nearly over.
How do we lance the ongoing and unacknowledged grief of a nation? This is the crisis within the crisis of 2020—we have not begun to mourn and have no way to do so.
III. I believe this is the church’s vocation, if we can conceive of such a ministry. Is the church big enough for it in the year of Our Lord 2020? It is up to us to name this moment, to validate the feeling, and to create a platform for its free expression. So, we still have a role to play, we always have and always will. Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever—although human circumstances may change. But now we must project this ministry publicly.
Now, fact is, Paul named you when he wrote to the Corinthian church. When Paul started the congregations around the Mediterranean, they were pretty rag-tag outfits. They had no assets of a material sort, and not many were very educated. But whatever he started there had legs, because the movement grew. In no time, it seems, a rudimentary organization emerged from the movement in Galatia, in Ephesus, in Colossae, in far off Corinth and Thessalonica. But not before some confusion. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth after his first two visits that they had all they needed for sustainability—each of their various needs could be met internally by different kinds of participants—they had prophets, they had teachers and healers, ecstatic speakers. Their only mistake was to suppose that communities are uniform and to underestimate the way a variety of gifts come together to build up the community. You can rely on each other to build up your community, Paul exhorted them, and you can also rely on something even more reliable—the love of God.
This is true right here. So don’t be misled by the biblical language—you may be wondering, where are any prophets, teachers and healers to be found today, except among people like you who have found their way to articulate their faith in God.
They say actions speak louder than words, and Eliot’s actions over the decades in service to social justice have been heard. But did you ever consider how words are actions? Here is a ministry during Covid and post-Covid that is begging for attention, a vacancy needing to be filled. Some of you already fill these roles—incognito.
You are no different than the church in Corinth (except you have no St. Paul). However, nobody till now gave you permission, nor orders either, to speak till now. We have a canvas on which to paint our ministry to a grief-stricken but grief-blind country. We have the whole exterior of the Eliot Church grounds.
IV. Don’t resist the call because you have some sense of ecclesiastical propriety. Put aside your own resistance to a new role for yourselves as a church, a public ministry. Whether Covid goes away or not, we have a public ministry to perform. Is this church big enough, spiritually speaking, to conceive ministry big enough to address society’s need to grieve? This is our country, this is our city, this our church—this is our year!
After we educate ourselves, individually and as a congregation, we will discern just what way to minister to the city’s most fundamental needs. And when that time comes, don’t resist. When the Discernment Committee sponsors the Small Group discussions for you to consider models and missions for the future, don’t resist the call of God into a new ministry of which you could have a part. Find your way beyond resistance to exaltation in this moment when Eliot Church will find its true vocation.
I am not holding out some silver lining among these dark clouds—this is actually the whole point of having been born at all, which is to serve. If you feel like that one Eliot member who said, “There’s too much, I just don’t know what to do.” Then what I have to say to you is, “Don’t just do something—FEEL something.” Feel your grief, and help others to do so, too.
This ministry may be something we may be able to conceive if we follow the ArtMob’s lead this fall and explore how we might better use the great space around the church as a means of articulating faith, hope and love to this community.
In 2020, many of the things you thought were important really aren’t anymore.
Things you paid little attention to—like your church—turn out to be the most important thing in a desolate city whose most fundamental needs aren’t being addressed but could be—by us! Let’s see how big Eliot Church really is, spiritually speaking, and whether we can minister to the needs of this grief-stricken and grief-blind nation.