Can’t go over it. Can’t go under it. Have to go through it. Those words from the refrain of the children’s song, “Going on a Bear Hunt,” keep running through my mind. I’ve been looking for a vacation spot, a weekend activity, an outing that would let me get around the coronavirus. What I keep running into is the reality that what I want to escape, unlike the heat and humidity of a midwestern summer or the bitter cold of February in Chicago, is everywhere.
Like dustbowl sand, Covid19 seeps into every corner of our lives. The grocery store clerk can’t see our smile and chatting through the mask is nearly impossible. Things we counted on have been cancelled. Decisions about playdates, neighborhood cocktails parties, and running errands demand that we think like epidemiologists. (I don’t know about you, but my last hard science class was in 1986). The constant decisions and changes to our daily lives erode at our capacity to manage the big stuff, like schools going remote and jobs being restructured.
The Coronavirus effects every part of our lives and it’s happening to all of us. Maybe remembering, “It’s happening to them too,” can bring us back to our better selves. Covid19 is happening to our boss, our neighbor, the grocery store clerk and the coffee shop barista. It’s happening to village board members, schoolteachers, and garbage truck drivers. It’s even happening to the people who pretend it’s not happening. None of us can escape Covid19. We are all in it together.
Maybe this is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Maybe he was telling us that school superintendents, pastors, and village board members aren’t epidemiologists either. They’re tasked with making important decisions in an area totally beyond their expertise. Maybe Jesus is reminding us that the other moms on Facebook, teachers, and the guy in the grocery store who acts like the one-way sign in the aisle is for everyone but him, are all struggling with their own anxieties and disappointments.
“Love your neighbor as yourself,” says Jesus. When we are finally past the pandemic and we can see each other’s faces, we will be in it (whatever the new “it” is) together.
My dog Mandy got skunked last night. I was enjoying a late dinner with a good friend on my patio on a just right summer night. The cicadas had finally quieted down and she and I could hear each other. I was beginning to think, “I should get the leash so Mandy doesn’t run into a …” when she squealed and came running up from the back of the yard.
The first time Mandy met a skunk I didn’t immediately realize what had happened. The odor was so much more intense than the skunk smell on the highway that I didn’t recognize it. It smelled like burning chemicals. I thought someone had committed a terrorist attack against my dog. In my panic I let her into the house and she ran into every room, rubbing her face on the floor trying to get the smell out. She ran into her kennel, her safe space, and ran right out again. For weeks the skunk smell lingered in the house. I swore I could see a haze of stink, like in a commercial for breath freshener.
Once I realized what happened, I found a skunk-off recipe on the Internet. It helped. But for weeks the only part of her that smelled like her was her feet. I would lie beside her on the floor and hold her foot up to my nose to take in her unique combination of dog sweat, grass and dirt that smells a lot like warm Doritos.
My dog’s been skunked and I have too. I’ve tasted the shame of betrayal and felt the sting of being misinterpreted. I’ve been made into a handy scapegoat and been the object of gossip.
I’ve been skunked and I confess I’ve been a skunk. I’ve let my own hurt feelings, damaged pride and pent up anger spew onto others. Sometimes my absence has caused more hurt than any words would have.
I’ve learned through experience that once the spray has been released the smell lingers in the air and clings to those it touches.
There’s a story about Jesus in which he washes his disciples’ feet. It was customary for a host to provide a way for his guests to freshen up and wash off the road. What’s remarkable is that Jesus takes on the role of a servant and serves those who will soon skunk him. They’ll run away and pretend like they never knew him. And they will be skunked too when one of their own betrays them and their teacher is executed.
I am supposed to say that when Jesus washes their feet he washes the skunk juice off, a lesson for us that Jesus’ love can leave us fresh and sweet smelling. That hasn’t been my experience. Jesus’ love doesn’t take away the stink of skunking or being skunked. The odor clings and rises off of us so people cross to the other side of the street.
What is true is that Jesus doesn’t need us to smell good. He can acknowledge the stink without heaping on shame. He cradles our vulnerability like he held the feet of his beloved friends and he breathes in our most true selves.
It was so great to not have to write about Jesus for a whole week. Or even think about him much. Such freedom to write about grief, sex, longing, and my dog, and not have to think about what Jesus would say, or do, or feel, or even if he existed in the same ways that he is remembered. What a gift to not have to put my words through the sieve of “do I really believe this?” and “what will my congregation think?”
I loved being at Kenyon College with my tribe for the Kenyon Writers Institute Beyond Walls. The people at the Institute were other clergy and crazy religious types so I didn’t have to explain to them what I do or what it’s like. I didn’t have to wade through their preconceptions of a pastor and then redefine my role for them. Yes, women in my tradition can be ordained. Yes I can get married. Yes my work is meaningful – and sometimes boring and frustrating. No, I don’t just sit and think important thoughts and counsel people. I also call the exterminator when the ants are back, worry about a balanced budget, and negotiate with the Boy Scouts their use of our building. And I didn’t have to deal with the constant barrage of how the church is dying or get overwhelmed by ways to make worship zing. What a relief.
And I didn’t have to talk about Jesus. I have nothing against Jesus. I know some people talk about him as a confidant, a bosom buddy. They sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and really mean it. For me, Jesus is a more troublesome companion. He at once demands everything and claims that his yoke is easy.
When I got back to the church, the most important thing I did was visit a woman who was dying and her family. We didn’t talk about Jesus at all. We talked about who she had been, about their family, her progressive illness, their experience in these final days. I read scripture. We prayed.
We didn’t talk about Jesus at all.