These are troubling times, that’s for sure. Putting a pretty face on it will not change the reality. Like our ancestors before us, we are faced with a daunting situation that forces us to live our lives a little differently. Okay, maybe a great deal differently.
I’ve found myself remembering my ancestors a lot these days. A few years ago, I did a genealogical study of my family background. Maybe some of you have. It was fun and intriguing on many levels. It was also rather surprising.
There has always been talk in my family about Jewish ancestry. On both sides. My genealogical study did not find clear documentation of Jewish ancestry on my father’s side. That my paternal grandfather was adopted early in his life makes such clarity hard. That said, it is clearly possible. It was easy to document Jewish ancestry on my mother’s side. My great-grandmother, my maternal grandfather’s mother, family name was Nawrocki, a clear Jewish name in Poland. It means convert. So Nawrocki’s were Jewish converts to Catholicism, basically. She married Josef Ignasher, Romanized as Egnasher, which is my mother’s maiden name. Josef was Catholic as was my grandfather of the same name.
Though Nawrocki means convert, they were not spared Hitler’s wrath. While my great-grandparents migrated to American in the first decade of the 1900’s, Nawrocki’s in Poland died in the Holocaust. A hundred and nineteen of them, actually.
I think of my great-grandmother living through the Great Depression, through World War II, and through the news of Hitler’s maniacal genocide. Maybe she worried about feeding her family as the Great Depression hit their large, working class family hard. Maybe she worried about her family back in her ancestral home facing difficult days as well. Maybe she was alarmed and even cried at the news of Hitler’s rise through the 30’s. Maybe she grew depressed as victory in the war seemed in doubt. Maybe she prayed everyday as her sons went off to war. Maybe she had a party when each of them came back. Maybe she had a huge, extravagant meal of Polish specialties when the time of rationing ended.
Anyway, she lived through it. Millions of others did as well. And like our ancestors before us, we will get through this.
We will get through this, yes. But what will we learn in the process? Struggle is the best teacher. What are some lessons to be learned? And I ask this as a pastor. I am asking about our spirits and our collective lives spiritually.
This is what I think: What can be learned spiritually mirrors what is being demanded of us these days. And what is being demanded of us during this pandemic? This is the question I want to sit with and meditate upon a bit this morning.
Three things come to mind as I think about what is being asked of us and what we are learning in the process. Interdependence, Compassion, and Simpliciity.
We read what interdependence is about in our New Testament reading. Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to explain how the Body of Christ works. But we can apply the metaphor to the whole of the globe and even the universe.
By adapting Paul’s words to a global scale, we see the truth of it all. There is one world, but it has many continents with mountains and valleys and plains and prairies as well as oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams. But all its many geographical parts make up one world. It is the same with God. And so we are formed into one world. It doesn’t matter whether where you are born or come from. We were all given the same Spirit to partake of. The world is not made up of just one part. It has many parts.
And so, what happens in a province in China will have an effect of what happens here in Middletown, Ohio. Boy, has this been made crystal clear. What we call globalization now has always been a fact. The flu pandemic of 1918 started in Norway and made it to America and all around the world. On a more positive note, the carbon emissions from human activity that just a couple months ago were rather high in East Asia have lowered exponentially and the whole planet is breathing easier and healthier, giving the earth’s lungs a much needed respite.
This is interdependence. This is how Dr. King described it, ““In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [of us] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We are seeing this at work, sadly, with the pandemic. But we can make it a positive reality if we are mindful that our actions, what we do and don’t do, affect others not just close to us but down the line as well.
The next spiritual lesson we are learning is related to the truth of interdependence. If I know my actions, what I do and don’t do, affect others not just close to me but to others down the line, then acting accordingly is an obvious next step. And acting out of compassion and with compassion is always the best default.
Compassion literally means to feel with. It is an approach to life Jesus knew well. The gospels say Jesus was “moved with compassion” some 14 times. In his most famous parable, the Prodigal Son parable, Jesus tells how the father in the story is moved with compassion to run out to embrace his lost, returning son.
Compassion for us in the days of this pandemic means seeing the most vulnerable in our society, the elderly, the poor, the homeless, those who are most vulnerable to the Coronavirus, and doing what we can to keep them safe. In this case, it starts with doing less or even doing nothing – trips out, vacations, dinners out, work in the office, going to church? Less or even none of these things. Why? Because compassion tells us that whatever we do or don’t do for the most vulnerable, we do or don’t do for God.
Surely, it is easy to see and feel the concern of the most vulnerable when we are ourselves are feeling vulnerable. Feeling vulnerable and feeling compassion go hand in hand. Think peanut butter and jelly.
The notion of doing less or nothing leads to the final thing demanded of us that teaches us at the same time. And that is simplicity. We are learning or relearning the gift of simplicity during this time. Yes, it is not an easy lesson. However, in my thinking, it is an essential one. Often, we make things too complicated. Often, we want and try to take more than we need. Often, we go seeking after something that we don’t really need and that won’t make us happy anyway. To paraphrase a songwriter who shares my name and has the last one of Henley, to want what we have, to take what we’re given with grace, for this we should pray, each and every day – that is the simple life in a nutshell.
So, I finish this reflection with some beautiful music, a wonderful example of life’s simple gifts. It is a song that itself talks about simple gifts. Here is ‘Tis a gift to be simple” performed by Yo-yo Ma and Alison Krauss.