Spending more time outside these days, I’m reminded of standing in the grove, in Arnprior, with my arm outstretched, with birdseed in my open hand. I stand still, and wait.
The chickadees know that visitors to their part of the grove will sometimes bring them treats. And if they happen to be perched in the trees around you when you go with seed for them, you might have dozens of birds feeding two at a time from your hand.
This is like the posture of prayer. Which is our connection with God. Our part, is to be intentional about going into that place of prayer first of all. We have to choose to enter into it. It also a posture of being still, and being open. As with feeding the birds from your hand, prayer is about putting yourself in a position where grace can catch you. You know the saying: Faith is not so taught as it is caught.
In our relationship with God, we cannot control the outcome. We don’t know if and when what we may want will happen. The only thing we can do is return regularly to nurture that inner stance of openness to God.
Because God is free. And in our relating with God, in our prayer with God, we become free. It is in the savoring, the waiting, the creating space and time for God that over time and with practice we become free.
In a recent poll, half of respondents said their mental health has worsened over the last month, including 10 per cent who said it has worsened “a lot.” “Worried” and “anxious” were the top two answers, emotional states that experts don’t expect to dissipate any time soon.
Physical distancing, for example, has taken its toll. Perhaps the most emotionally difficult aspect of this whole experience has been losing our freedom to touch, to hold, to comfort and be physically present with those we love – whether in the ICU units, gravesides or around dining room tables.
Physical distancing and self-imposed seclusion have exposed our attachments. “What do you mean I can’t visit my loved one?” we object. Our attachments correspond to what we control in our lives. Or, believe we have some control over.
Losing control over our attachments has understandably caused us increased anxiety, fear and anger. We have experienced a collective loss – a way of being community, of gathering in public places shoulder to shoulder. I wonder how long it will be, if ever, before we experience some of those things again. That is why it is so important not to delay or postpone our grief. We cannot wait until after the crisis is over to grieve.
We must lament now all the things we have lost and are losing during this time – travelling, weddings, celebrations, holidays and holy days, jobs, business, dreams, friends and family members – all of it. While we can delay certain services, there is no postponing grief. Now is the time for each of us to feel it – the guilt, shame, rage, fear, frustration, denial. All of it.
I remember learning in seminary of the importance of being present to someone in ministry. We called it the ‘ministry of presence’. At the same time, we were encouraged to reflect on its counterpoint: the importance of embracing a ‘ministry of absence’.That is, the healing, grace and growth that happen in times of being absent from one another. Then, I wasn’t exactly sure I understood that concept fully. But now, I am coming into a greater appreciation of its meaning.
Because during the COVID-19 crisis, we are realizing that our physical distancing – our ‘absence’ – actually saves lives. We are practising a new way of being with others. Who would have thought that creating physical distance would be an authentic and effective way to care for our loved ones and neighbours, especially the most vulnerable?
It’s hard to move in this direction, however, when we haven’t come to terms yet with our losses. The irony is that we come to affirm our healthy, life-giving connections during this crisis only by grieving what we have lost throughout all of this. Losing something or someone is letting go. Letting go is about acceptance. Acceptance is freedom.
There was a period of time shortly after I was ordained that it seemed in every funeral I did the family chose the scripture that is the Gospel for today.Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places …” It appears that at times of loss, Christians express their hope with a vision of coming home. A spiritual home. A place of union in the eternal love of God.
God shows this incredible, free, love to us now. God is a God who chooses to show that love in tears shed for us in our losses. In Christ, we can see those tears when Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, when Jesus lamented over Jerusalem for murdering its prophets, on the cross begging for the forgiveness of those who tormented him.
What the present crisis is offering us is an opportunity to approach ourselves with the love and forgiveness of Jesus. So desperately needed, now. What this crisis invites us to do is become open to the love and care that is offered to one another, imperfect though it may be. What this crisis invites us to do is practice being vulnerable – with ourselves, with others and with God.
When we give ourselves to prayer – however we do it – we practice the awareness of God’s presence. One of my favourite outdoor lawn care activities is aerating the lawn. It’s when that machine goes over the lawn leaving clumps of dirt lying all over the pocketed yard. This allows much need oxygen to enter and stimulate growth in the earth. Prayer time, meditation, contemplation, biblical reading, mindful walking – this work aerates the lawn of our minds and hearts. So the breath and the life of God can enter in.
To begin with, just notice your breathing. And not just breathing in, but especially the outbreath. We can’t hold our breath forever. We can’t control it. We’ll die if we don’t let go. So, exhaling is necessary for life. It is also an act of great trust. At that moment when you finish exhaling, there is a space, the moment of ‘death’. That’s when grace happens. Trust the outbreath, and God will breathe life into you. Again.
I believe the writings of Henri Nouwen introduced me to the idea of ‘absence’ being just as an important part of ministry as ‘presence’.
Luke 19:41; Matthew 23:37