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On Reading Moby Dick During COVID

“Call me Ishmael.” 

For over 170 years he’s been reaching out his hand and inviting us to leave our familiar shore and head with him out to sea.  

Sometimes, like Ishmael, we take off with him for the long, dense journey through 135 chapters because we have nothing particular to interest us on shore.  Sometimes we know this need to “drive off the spleen” or regulate our circulation.  Sometimes, a damp drizzly November in our soul…January 2021, a COVID Winter, almost a year into the pandemic.

So while my sister lay on the couch playing Word Chums, the dog asleep at her feet, while my niece knitted, and friends binge-watched Netflix, I read Moby Dick.  I’m not saying that to make myself out as particularly noble in the adventures I choose.  I’d already seen all the hit Netflix series – “The Crown”, “Lupin”, “The Queen’s Gambit”….and I can’t play Word Chums well enough to beat my sister. 

No, not nobility but mindlessly scrolling through yet more unread emails led me to take Ishmael’s hand.  That notice that the Folio Athenaeum and Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle were co-sponsoring a six- week read of Moby Dick. Two of my favorite organizations in Seattle, how could I refuse? And besides, Lillian was leading the book group. 

Lillian Dabney is the Librarian at the Folio where for three long years I struggled over writing my own book about going to “sea” and learning to sail. Between writing, editing and lots of staring out the window on Puget Sound, Lillian and I would talk about point of view and character development.  She’d recommend books I’d never heard of, opened new worlds in literature that I never would have ventured into.  

“Every time is a good time to read Moby Dick”, she told us. 

I wasn’t so sure.  

When I was preparing to leave Seattle several years ago for my own adventure at “sea”, I was given a blue leather bound, gold-plated edition of Moby Dick from a young couple. I’d read Moby Dick once decades before at a time when I was seeking to knock off a few more titles from that endless list of “books I should read” or “books that it would be impressive to say I’d read” to impress my Word Chum and Netflix watching family. I remember reading it as an adventure story with some rather long boring parts and recognized there was something here I was missing. I figured I’d pass on my fancy tome to my eldest nephew who likes reading such classics.  I couldn’t imagine ever reading it again.  

But then, its COVID.  It’s not any time, but this time and perhaps the time to read Moby Dick again for a Zoom book group which enables a homesick guy on the east coast to connect to my familiar shore of Seattle right after dinner and before my bedtime. So perhaps, yes, “The best time to read Moby Dick is now,” as Lillian reminded us.  

And so thanks to an invitation and my own “November in my soul” this COVID winter and spring I read Moby Dick.  Twice, in fact. 

The first time through felt like I’d felt so often the past year. Overwhelmed, lost in chapters I couldn’t always follow, obscure references about things I imagined I might have once known, words I’d never heard of (and grateful to learn were sometimes Melville’s own inventions!), a plot I struggled to make sense of. The erudite readers in our group saw things I never saw. Commented on details I missed.  Yes, Netflix sounded good sometimes. I’d never gotten this lost, confused and overwhelmed in watching “The Crown.”  

The day after we at last finished, Lillian proposed we start over and read Moby Dick again.  I laughed. I mean, I’d never have imagined doing that. Had I in fact ever read any book over again right away? I mean with so many books, you have to move on.  And I mean the absurdity of it – to take on 615 gold-leafed pages – all again?  But yes, I had to admit, its still a COVID winter.  And if not this time what time to spend six more weeks reading Moby Dick?  My Monday nights looked like they’d be free for at least the next year as far as I could tell.  

So, “Call me Ishmael,” one more time.  But this time through I knew a bit more and understood a bit more about where Ishmael was taking us. I knew there was so much more here that I wanted to learn,  realized in fact that I not only could but I wanted to read it again. What was it that I recognized I needed in reading it again? 

Like some of my friends, I’ve felt the dislocation, discombobulation of going through time the past year. Each day, each week, each month a relentless cycle of “the same” wondering how it could be Thursday night…Saturday night…yet again, trying to remember what it was I’d actually done the past week.  

Reading Moby Dick again was different.  Instead of going through a haze in time week after week, re-reading Moby Dick deepened my experience of time.  As I read it more deeply, deliberately, this second time, I wasn’t quite as lost in the turns of the plot and intricacies of language. I was learning, hearing differently. Deepening, not lost, in the turning of pages, the passage of time.  

Yes, “anytime is a good time to read Moby Dick,” and perhaps read differently through each season of time we read it in. Through the long year of masking, distancing, and endless hand washing, through the anxiety and stress of grocery shopping, and the isolation of being at home alone, there was Ishmael inviting us into an intimacy that felt of another world. As he climbed into bed with Queequeg, as he let down his guard and opened his heart, as he put down his hubris and discovered Queequeg’s humanity, legs entwined and pipe smoking shared, he opened my longing for such an intimacy with one another that seemed lost on a forgotten shore. What a time in this COVID time, to be led by the hand (can you imagine!), with an invitation to entwine ourselves in another’s humanity, no longer stranger.  To invite us to recover our own humanity and see it in one another that we keep hidden in our small mindedness and prejudice.  

There again, Ishmael, inviting us into a squeezing of hands that I had forgotten how much I missed. There with hands in the spermaceti with him, squeezing hands, (aghast that we can’t actually be doing this, can we?) and recalling me to the longing for it.  When was the last time I held and touched another’s hand? 

Amidst all the imprisonments of my small fears, there is Ishmael who is not so afraid, meeting fear with curiosity.  Uncovering within him, within us, the discovery of what is beyond our prejudices, our racism, the humanity, the human beings we are.  Taking us by the hand and leading the way through New Bedford, on the Pequod out to sea, in the wonder of the whale, opening, expanding our small world confinements with curiosity, an openness to discovery. 

It does my soul good to join him with all his prejudices and my own that are so resistant to leave a familiar shore, so resistant to change.  He takes me by hand and sets out to introduce me to the world again – Black, White, Asian, Savage, Cannibal, Christian, Pagan… With his hand in mine, watching his, my own racism, prejudices, assumptions expanded, re-thought, reworked by his curious and caring imagination. 

As I read on, found I didn’t so much read Moby Dick as it read me. How I find myself, even and especially where I do not want to be found, in all these characters at sea. But this year unmasked me, as at times I found myself unrecognizable to myself. Whose self-incrimination, depression, out-of-sortness is this?, I wondered.  Who is this feeling like I’d never felt before?  

And so this year, I too have gotten to know Starbuck in me, whose humanity is his strength and his downfall. That part of me that can’t stop doing what I am accustomed to doing, going along, fulfilling “orders”,” deceiving myself into thinking it might be, could be, otherwise.  Unable to turn to a bigger imagination of what might be possible but only returning to an outdated morality and ethics.  As I watch him, I wonder myself on my own stepping up and stepping away from the responsibility of what is required. Lacking with him the imaginative capacity to see what it would be to step beyond ways that do not serve anymore.  

Here, too, with Ishmael, covering up my suspicions of what I need to do.  I know this: “But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me.”  (103)… As it has been with me.  

Here, me in Stubb, in my awful pride when I have killed my own “whale”.  

Here, too, like Pip lost at sea, lost to myself.  I’ve known something of it this year, what it is to be out there alone at times in rolling waves, no clear rescue in sight.

Recognize the nobility in the harpooners who eat last, these essential workers, who do not abandon the ship to the last, stand on the masts sinking in the waves looking out, doing what they came to do, what they do.  

As I read on, wonder at my own sea voyaging, my own stepping away from what had been my life. Am I too the Blacksmith who set sail to heal a wound that could not be healed? 

This year, I not only read this, I get this, we, vulnerable humanity in our tiny boat, Queequeg holding up the lantern through the foggy night, far from the ship, “hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair”. (240)

And yes, Ahab, hell-bent and not able to turn aside, even as he leads his crew to their deaths.  

And thankfully, sometimes, too, Ishmael who again and again takes me by hand, open to wonder and discovery. Perhaps it’s why he’s the one to survive.  

Moby Dick reads me. 

And so, this COVID winter and spring as I watched the storming of the US Capitol, I read Moby Dick. Saw the mad men out there, in me, Ahab’s “madness maddened,” unable to turn away even from our better judgment.  

Read Moby Dick as I watch Derek Chauvin’s trial, Facebook Posts and YouTube videos of more and more and more Black and Brown men and women people killed by police.  Daunte Wright…Marvin Scott…Ma’Khia Bryant….. There Ishmael, taking me by the hand again to see, to weep, to rage, to see the whiteness we refuse to see, don’t want to see, this empty slate filled with our fears.  

Read Moby Dick as I read of mass shooting after mass shooting….Atlanta, Boulder, L.A.…. Wonder on this Tahiti in our souls that we need to ground us and call us through the tumultuous sea.  

As my aunt, elderly and in a nursing home, dies of COVID, read Moby Dick.  As COVID cases world-wide surpass 100 million…2.5 million deaths….500,000 in the US alone, read Moby Dick.  At my best, can feel what I do not want to feel, how we all are like it or not “enveloped in whale-lines.”  Sometimes, in hearing the stories, seeing the images, can imagine how the most vulnerable among us feel, the cut of the rope against their necks as it is as well against our own, as we “realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.” (301)

So, yes, “It is always a good time to read Moby Dick,” and this COVID winter and spring Ishmael leads me where I want and do not want to go, to see what I could choose not to see. Always sending me out, to further exploration, wonder, to breaking down of all our small walls and considerations, out into discovery, out to sea.  

And here, as well, reading Moby Dick, recovering from my first vaccine, and now my second. I know the temptation of the Lee Shore – the deadly longing to go back, to return to the safe-haven of the past even though there is no going back. Fear that we may not have learned, may again choose not to know what has been uncovered, revealed about ourselves, our lack of humanity, the systemic racism that is a whale line around our necks, the climate crisis that we do not want to recognize.  

Perhaps, I’ve turned to preaching…

Which is something Ishmael never does.  But calls us out, full of questions.  Shows us instead of preaching the contours and shapes of the whales bones, peels back his skin, wonders on the meaning of skin, the meaning of whiteness. A  trustworthy guide when we’ve lost trust. 

Gaslighting is in full force today, to deny what happened this year, is happening now, to just move on and forget. But can we turn from the treachery of safety?  To again risk discomfort so we can live our life, for life? To trust ourselves to the sea so we might each find our Tahiti?  What will it take for us to turn aside?  Can we?  Do we all have to die except a survivor like Ishmael?  Could it not have ended differently?  Can it for us? Will we perish before we can turn away?  That’s our question at the end of the discussion. 

I could slide into preaching again…. 

So, yes, Ishmael, take me by the hand.  Continue to lead me where I did not want to go. Clear my eyes.  Reveal me to myself.  Open me to wonder. Go with me, out, into the sea.

Tattered Fabric

It was a perfect Maine spring day for the Memorial Day parades in town.  Drizzly, gray, a bit of bite in the air.  A perfect day to remember what we are here to do, a perfect day to hold all we have been through these past fifteen months.  

The last time I spoke at a Memorial Day celebration, I was ten years old. A Prisoner of War, a Vietnam Veteran, had returned home to my hometown that year and I’d been asked to speak to the gathering on the town common that Memorial Day.  Its decades later now, and I feel a bit like that ten year old boy as I stand here on the library lawn, the stone memorial to the war dead in Boothbay Harbor beside me, the community band in their red blazers and white pants behind.  

It’s been a long time since I’ve taken part in any Memorial Day celebration and unlike communities that mark Memorial Day with community picnics and races, here the formal solemnity of the day is still carried on. Six two-block long parades scattered around the Peninsula led by a color guard and twenty slowly marching veterans. A trolley car of other vets too feeble to walk, a sharing of words by a local pastor or church leader, the laying of a wreath at the memorial marker. Not quite understanding what was required of me today, I’d gone to watch the little parade and ceremony in Newagen earlier this morning. Introduced myself to Carl who told me of when the parade was twice as long, the band twice as big.  He remembered how many veterans, dear friends, have died in the past years, how many of their stories lost.  

My conversation with Carl reminded me of a short piece I’d read earlier this morning from Heather Cox Richardson, a historian who lives on the peninsula just to the east of us here in Boothbay Harbor.  She wrote, “I cannot think of those who died in our wars without thinking of the terrible holes their deaths tore in the fabric of our lives” — the wonder of who they would have become, what the world has lost by never knowing their children. 

Looking out at the children, women and men gathered along the sidewalks and edges of the green lawn in bright rain jackets and ball caps, I think of all the stories this crowd and so many like it could tell of this past year. How COVID-19 has touched, disrupted, upended, taken and torn from our lives. The plans we abandoned, the expectations we let go. I wonder if perhaps we all understand a bit more about what “tattered fabric” is like and what we have come to mark and do today as we remember those who have died in our wars.  

As we whisper the names we know or have been told about, relatives, friends, neighbors who have died in past wars, I’m reminded of standing in church yesterday, our first Sunday for in-person worship in over 14 months.  During the service, some of us came forward to write down the names of relatives and loved ones that had died in war.  

I remember too how yesterday at church, Mike, a Vietnam War veteran, stood and shared that yes, we must remember those who have died but we must also not forget those who have come home from war. The way war wounds everyone touched by it.  To remember veterans who lived through the war only to have lives ravished by addiction, mental and physical illness, psychological trauma.  The tattered fabric of their lives. I think of the eighteen Veterans today who will take their own lives as eighteen Veterans every day in our country take their own lives. Invite us again, to pause, remember.  

Today thanks to the words I have heard and this marking I am part of, I get it in a way I haven’t before, that this Memorial Day to not only a day to remember the tattered fabric of loss and grief but also a call to repair.  A day to come together,  to bind together the fabric of who we are and who we have become as a people and nation. A day to recommit to tend and mend the tattered fabric that is our common life. 

Yes, to repair the fabric in the marking and memory.  Yes, to do it by finding our way to advocate and create a community of care and support for our veterans, for all, wounded by the ravage of war.  Yes, to repair the fabric, by remembering the stories so they are not forgotten.  

As I stood here outside the library I thought of all the stories that have been forgotten, the stories that we never learned and must. The story of people like Isaac Woodard that I learned last week. Woodard, a decorated African-American World War II Veteran, who on February 12, 1946, hours after being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army, was attacked while still in uniform by White police in South Carolina as he was taking a bus home. Beaten and blinded for being an African-American war hero. 

I look around the crowd and long to see, must see, have to see, the possibility of what is here in us together.  All we might do, of who we might become together. Perhaps, no, not too late. Not too late to relearn sacrifice for the sake of healing.  To work together for our common good in not only word but deed. To remember and tell the stories and so live a more authentic and true story of who we are and might become.  To create, yes, a more perfect union and live into the ideals of which we proclaim and sing, for which so many have hoped and striven, so many wounded and continue to die, a country, tattered and torn yes, but where there will at last be true liberty and justice for all.  

The band strikes up, the parade moves on.  

Going Back to “Normal” is Not So Easy

A few weeks ago a colleague mentioned to me that the pastors he has talked to have said that the transition back to in-person worship is harder than the transition last spring to closing down in-person worship.

I didn’t quite get it.  We weren’t opening to limited public worship until May 30 and that seemed a long way away a few weeks back.  But last week with May 30 getting closer, I understood a bit more about the challenges of return.  We’ve had lots of conversations about guidelines and processes for a safe return while the guidelines change, some clamor for quicker change, while others worry about their kids and other unvaccinated friends and family getting sick. No easy cookbook solution to meet everyone’s needs.  

These aren’t unfamiliar dynamics in any time of change. But what is it about this transition that I am finding so challenging?

In the last week, I’ve been watching myself return to old habits that tell me I’m stressed. I see how I have rushed to complete things and check them off my to-do list so I could get on to the next thing to check off, instead of pausing and waiting like I do when I’m working at my best. I’ve noticed myself rushing over checking in with the people I have committed to checking in with, running to “fix” problems that aren’t to be fixed but to be with.  

For sure, the deadlines and to-do lists with yet another transition are real but I don’t deal with them as easily this time as I do at my best. What’s up?  

Perhaps its because I was only here in Boothbay Harbor six weeks before March 13 when the pandemic closed down life as we knew it. Perhaps its because “going back” feels like moving to a brand new community and new way of being together that I’ve not really experienced before. For over the past 14 months I’ve stood on the chancel preaching across rows of empty pews to the crack at the top of the sanctuary door. This coming Sunday there will be people here. What’s that going to be like?

Last Wednesday, it was two weeks since my second COVID-19 vaccine. It’s taken a while to get used to talking to other vaccinated people without a mask on. For some, its like the first time I saw them without a mask!  So strange and wonderful, disconcerting and new, to see people’s faces again.  So strange to be learning about getting together with others without the familiar anxiety of the past fourteen months.

I’ve been joking that I’ve been out “partying” the last couple of weeks.  I had dinner with a couple last Thursday night, a small afternoon cocktail hour the next day and a family party on Sunday afternoon.  As I sat at the table with the other retired ministers and their spouses on last Friday afternoon I felt how long it had been since I’d socialized with a group of people I didn’t know. It felt like an old familiar thing I once knew how to do as I listened to the rhythm of the conversation ebb and flow. An hour into the gathering I texted the friend I was supposed to be talking with to reschedule our conversation. I’d forgotten how such gatherings in person evolve and besides, I was enjoying myself.  That too, such a strange feeling, thoroughly enjoying myself, not anxious or cautious being with others as i’ve been during the height of the pandemic.  

As my social calendar filled up I wondered, How did I ever make time for doing this? What do I need to give up now to make time for it?  I actually had to say no to an invitation because I’d already committed to another invitation.  I haven’t said no to an invitation in over a year.

A friend mentioned how much better her relationship with her husband has gotten during COVID. “I realized before I was running around a lot and when I got home I was tired, worn out.  He didn’t get the best of me.  With COVID and both of us working at home and none of those things to run around and do, we had better quality time to spend with each other.” 

Listening to her, I wondered how I’ll figure out a new life-giving balance in all the responsibilities and relationships in my life.  

I wrote a friend last night whose church just opened last Sunday to public worship, “Getting back is hard!”

“You will be fine,” she reminds me, “You have done it before.”

And maybe that’s it – I have done so much of what is before me before and this time, this return, I don’t want to do it like before.  

In the isolation of the past year and a half I’ve reached out more intentionally and regularly to some of my family and friends. I don’t want to lose those connections in my busyness of social engagements and “getting back to normal.” And though its not always been easy, I’ve been kinder and better to myself as well the past year.  With not as many engagements and activities, I’ve had time to do things like this – sit here at the kitchen counter and write, ruminate and wonder.  Time to listen to the birds sing as I am doing now. I don’t want to lose this gift of time and I fear losing it in the change of season.

Here in this summer resort community, life is particularly busy in the spring and summer.  I hear from folks about their calendars filling up, about long lists of chores. I don’t know if I want that. In fact, I know I don’t.  And what does that mean that I don’t want added responsibilities?  Am I stepping away from something I should be doing or am I in fact making room for something I do?  

Last year, many of these folks like me didn’t have long lists of chores and to-do lists.  I had time last year at this time and because I had time, became a better pastor at work and more present to family and friends.  

Maybe, that’s the invitation to help meet my anxiety.  Being present to all of it.  The anticipation of a summer here like I’ve not experienced before.  The grief of putting down some wonderful ways of doing things and making room for learning some new ways.  To step out of my comfort zone and into the newness of now.  That’s how it is for me.  How is it for you in this season of yet another change?  

This Year’s Pentecost

As we mark Pentecost this year, the “birthday” of the Christian Church, I’m particularly reminded that it’s not just a Church way back then that we remember, but the Church and our particular churches, that are being born anew this season. Not just the Spirit back then in the story-world speaking to the followers of Jesus, but the Spirit speaking to us and to the church today. 

Next Sunday we’ll be beginning to explore and learn what it means to be a new church that will welcome some of us each week for in-person worship while many of us will continue to connect on live-stream.  The word “hybrid” church is all over church leadership conversations these days.  You can tell it’s a new season for the church for every church leader I’ve read or talked to keeps saying “I don’t know” about where the church is going and what it all means for the future of the church.  All anyone seems to know is that it is different – and that it is just the time we need to discern and follow the Spirit’s lead. 

All of which means these times may be an exciting time for some of us and distressing for others of us.   And yes, discombobulating for all of us some of the time.  

For something happened to us this past year that we may not even be able to recognize or name.  Something is happening to us now that is unfolding. The good news is that we are a people called out by the Spirit and in this together learning and discerning and finding out together.

May we all go well, be well these days in the Spirit of Change.  My hopefulness, heart and prayer is with us all.

Thin Place

A “thin place” is term from Celtic Christianity, a way of speaking of a meeting place between us and the holy. 

A “thin place” is the kind of place that made you feel like yourself, grounded and centered.  It’s the kind of place that you may have been to once a long time ago where you felt particularly in the presence of Mystery, of all we might call God.  

Thin places are sometimes places outdoors, places of beauty or restoration. I have found many “thin places” along the Boothbay Region Land Trust Trails and at the Botanical Gardens. Where’s a “thin place” for you?    

Thin places are not always easy places to be. I once took a group of youth to the island of Iona in Scotland which some have called a “thin place.”  On that bare, rocky small island all the of us felt out-of-sorts with all the emptiness, barrenness, nothing to do but to be in it.  Iona was a “thin place” that opened up stories and feelings that were not always easy or comfortable.

This week I’ve been reminded that times of transition are thin places too. Moving from what was to what yet will be can be times of excitement and anxiety, anticipation and fear – both, all at once. They are particular times when we might see what we might not have seen as clearly before about ourselves and the communities we are part of. 

We are all in a “thin place” of transition now.  Some of us anticipating family gatherings when we haven’t gathered as family for over a year.  Some of us going out to a restaurant – can you imagine?!  Some of us not yet sure about venturing out and saying yes to the dinner invitation. 

Here at church we are in a “thin place” now as we get ready to transition to hybrid worship.  It reminds me of how it felt a year ago in March when we had to transition quickly from in-person to only live-streaming worship.  Sometimes it felt overwhelming. Often it wasn’t clear what to do. We weren’t sure what would work and what wouldn’t.  We had to learn in “real time” when there weren’t any maps to show us the way. We had to learn by trying, making mistakes, learning from our mistakes, trying again, failing again.  It wasn’t easy but along the way we found our way. 

Like we did a year ago, we will again in the months ahead be trying and making mistakes and learning what works along the way. We’ll need to remind ourselves that if we don’t risk “failing” we’re not trying hard enough.  And yes, to remember that it’s not about doing it “right” or “wrong”, but about finding our way together. 

In this “thin place” time, I wonder what might happen if we bring our wonder and bring our curiosity. To take in the joy of seeing one another and reach out to those who stand at the sidelines, not yet ready to engage in person. To remember that we are not all in the same place with this transition.  We are and we will be in the months ahead in many different ways of anticipation and anxiety, joy and grief, wonder and worry. I think we’ll make a holy space together if we go through this time remembering there is room for all of us, in all the ways we come.  

In this thin space, in this transition time once again, God draws very close to us, a breath within, a breath away. Right here.  Sometimes so close that we can’t even see where God is. 

I wonder, what will you hear, what will you experience of the Spirit of the Living God moving with you, with us, in this “thin place” of change? I wonder, how it might change us?

Peter 

So We Can Move On, Remember

We had a Big Night here last week.

In Maine terms that means just the right number of warm nights, just the right amount of drenching of long-needed rain. It means the perfect conditions for a Big Night migration of wood toads, frogs and yellow spotted salamanders to the vernal pools. 

When I moved here, I had no idea what a vernal pool was.  All I saw were these brownish watery patches in the springtime woods. A wet puddle of oak leaves and scattered branches.  Not much to see – or so I thought.

Last week I signed up to go on a vernal pool walk.  Our guide waded out into one of those brown puddles of oak leaves and scattered branches with a white plastic bucket.  She scooped up some water and placed it on the ground near our little group.  

We stood around like little children oohing and ahhing at tadpoles swimming, the mosquito larvae that look like little harmless little twigs, and the two-fisted size gelatinous globule spotted with little brown specks – so otherworldly and so beautiful – a yellow spotted salamander egg sac.  

I’d never seen anything like this, never would have, if I hadn’t taken the time to stop and pause for this afternoon walk in the woods.  

These days and nights, the Maine woods are singing.  My birder friends tell me its part of a great migration of the flying kind – all sorts of neo-tropical songbirds.  All I know is that I was running in Linekin Bay the other day when a birds song stopped me in my tracks.  “What is it?”  I asked my running companion.  “I think it’s a wood thrush.”  All I know is that I can’t wait to hear one again.  

Its an amazing time to pause, to hear and see what’s happening around us.  The only trick is you have to take time for it.  It doesn’t just come, you have to invite it. Open your door before going to bed, find the moon glistening through the dark branches. Listen to the peepers.  

The Big Night and aviary migrations in the woods are also happening among us of the human species.  More and more of us are getting vaccinated.  I had my second vaccine last week.  

Some of us are impatient to get on with it and back to what had been our lives.  Some of us struggling seeing the new life popping up around us as we can’t see any new life sprouting anywhere within us.  

Spring can be a hard time to pause and an important time to pause.

In the story, its springtime as well.  Moses stands on the hilltop overlooking the Promised Land beyond.  After 40 years of wandering, some want to just get on with it and check out this new home its taken them so long to find. Instead, the Book of Deuteronomy invites us to one long pause before jumping into whatever comes next.  

As Joanna reminds us in the movie, “News of the World”, “In order to move forward you need to remember.” In the world of the Biblical story, Moses pauses on a hilltop and remembers.  Here in spring in Northern New England, here making our way to this point through the pandemic, a good time to pause and remember what is important.  

The other day, Mike Denton, the Conference Minister of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, offered four questions to pause and consider this season. I offer them to you as an invitation for you to pause yourself, with your friends and family, before jumping into your committee agenda, to remember so that we might move forward with perhaps a bit more perspective, grounding and hope.  

  1. What is something you did before the pandemic you are looking forward to doing again?

For me, it’s that 5:30 gym class at the Y. Browsing the stacks at the Boothbay Memorial Library. 

  • What is something you started during the pandemic you hope to continue?

Zoom calls with my family at 5 on Sunday afternoons.

  • What is something you did before the pandemic began that you want to let go of?  

Perfection and over planning.  This year taught me of the need to jump in and learn in real time.

  • What is something you started doing during the pandemic you are happy to stop?

Not passing bread.  I look forward to the day when I don’t have to continue celebrating communion alone in an empty chancel or at a kitchen counter but can again freely pass and share the bread with you.  

Before us, yes, a Promise Land, always.  Before us, as it always is as well, a time unknown and a time of great need.  The issues that have no vaccination will continue long after we’ve moved on – climate crisis, police brutality, white supremacy, voter suppression.  The state of our world, our nation, our democracy, church, our life together as people are truly at stake.  Will we take the gifts of the past to build a new tomorrow – or will we merely rush on to the ending?   

I read the other day that in France there are 170,000 monuments to World War 1, holding the memory of the millions who died.  However, there is no memorial for the 1918 pandemic that killed 50-100 million people worldwide. 

What if, in our own particular ways, before moving on, we paused to build a memorial. To make a space to remember, reflect, share with each other what we’ve learned and don’t want to forget. To let our past shape our way forward into the kind of future we long for.  

The way begins, today, with taking a time to pause. I’d love to hear what your discover.  

Forward

The cloud by day and pillar of fire by night led the people of Israel out of Egypt.  Out of bondage and slavery into the promise of a Land of Promise.  

But when Pharaoh changed his mind and wondered if it actually was such a good idea to let the people of Israel go and lose his workforce, he pursued them to the banks of the Red Sea.  

Destruction behind, no way forward ahead, the people of Israel cried out to Moses, “It would have been better to have died at home than out here in the desert!” 

Sometimes going back, going home is what we need to do.  But sometimes, in the story world and ours today, there is no going back to the way things used to be.

Sometimes, it is wise to stay still and wait upon God, to make a space before jumping in, leaping ahead, to wait for an opening.  But sometimes in the story world and ours today, staying still is as ineffective as trying to stop a rapidly flowing stream with our hands. 

Sometimes, we have to do what the God of Promise and Spirit of Life is always calling us to do – to Move! Forward!  Continue!  Onward!  

The presence of God, there in the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, moved from the front of the crowd to the back. God’s presence between the people of Israel and Pharaoh’s army behind them.  

The people of Israel in the story world and we in ours, both look ahead into the unknown.  No clear way ahead, but God making a way out of no-way as the sea parts.  Watery death on either side, an unknown, untried way through the parted sea.  God at our back behind.  “Move!  Forward!  Onward”, God encourages us, urging us forward.  

No going back, no standing still, but forward, forward into this unknown. 

I invited us on Sunday to wonder on the unknown before you.

What’s a commitment you want to make so you keep going, keep moving forward?  Where do you feel God at your back encouraging you to go?  

Some of us last week had a conversation after Derek Chauvin’s trial.  We want to commit to our next steps in the work of becoming an anti-racist people and community.  

Some of us want to create something, make something new.  

Some of us want to have a conversation with others about a topic we care about.  

Some of us are called to widen our welcome to others.  

Some of us are committed to take our love of nature out into something we can do for the healing of the earth.

Some of us are committed to the work of dying, the work of letting go, walking with an outstretched hand ourselves or with a spouse or loved one into their death.

Some of us want to continue to grow and nurture the connections we have so depended on this year.  We have learned more than ever that we can’t do this work alone.  We really need each other. We want to step into nurturing those connections with our children, friends, family, new friends.    

What about you? If God has your back, what do you want to say yes to?  

The children of Israel didn’t find their way into the unknown alone.  They did it together. 

The Spirit of the Living God is at our backs, calling us to step forward into this amazing new day full of unknown and full of possibility.  

What do you want to say yes to?

Turning Aside

And Moses said,”I will turn aside to see this great sight…” (Exodus 3:3)

I was on the way home yesterday after a wonderful visit in Portland, a stop at LL Bean to get a water filter for the trek I am taking in June in the 100 mile wilderness.  And on the way South on 27 I found melancholia had joined me in the seat beside me.  “Who invited you here?,”  I wondered. 

My heart full of memory and the tasks to complete ahead, a sermon I was struggling to complete.  I drove past the Cross River Preserve, remembered how I’d always intended to go there this winter and never did.  Something in me wanted not to rush on home but to turn around and head back for a walk in the woods.

In the story, Moses is out doing his job, tending the sheep when he sees something.  Or feels something that beckons him.  How many times had he felt this before and done nothing about it? How many times do we know we need to step aside and don’t?  But this day, this time, Moses did, turned aside to see a bush that was burning but was not consumed.  

Its hard to figure.  Sometimes the work that we to get to is that work at the end of the road and not getting to it is just trying avoiding what we do not want to face. But sometimes, the work, the real work, necessitates we turn around, turn aside, to see what this thing is that beckons.  

Yesterday I turned around.  Headed back.  And as I stepped out of the car I knew that I had made the right decision, a life-giving decision. I felt such joy, such delight and happiness. 

What is it about these Maine woods? Its mud and muck season. Brilliant green moss and blue-green lichens covering the trees, so bright they appear fluorescent. It’s the wonder of trees ripped from stumps that leave a firework of awe.  It’s the curiosity of what is it that has been gnawing at the tree?  Its not yet those little white and purple flowers that I remember from last spring. It is these little green shoots coming up through the ground cover of dark brown leaves.  

I invite you to step aside this week with me.  To be curious about those urges to step away from what you think you need to be doing to do what you might actually need to be about.  And to listen with me for where joy is speaking to you, calling you. 

When I got back in the car, the sermon had resolved itself.  It wasn’t something out there to be done, but something right here as I turned aside that I needed to receive.  

What today is yours to say yes to?

On Not Rushing the Ending

One of my favorite books is William Bridge’s book, Transitions:  Making Sense of Life’s Changes.  I love his book because he wrote it first in his 40’s and rewrote it in his 70’s when as he says, “I actually had learned something about how transitions work!” It’s a book that has helped me identify my particular passion and call to work with communities and individuals in times of transition and change as an interim pastor.    

One of the most challenging parts of transition is the “neutral zone” – that time between what has been and what will be. As this can be an uncomfortable time for many of us, sometimes we choose to just get it over with and leap to a premature “ending”. Bridge’s cautions against such jumping ahead and notes that the time in the “neutral zone” has its own sense of time.  Instead of rushing it and reacting to our discomfort, we need to trust in the “neutral zone” in order to fully ingest its gifts, to let it transform us and find the next step that is truly life-giving.  

I’ve been reminded of this reality as I read this morning’s “Portland Press Herald” and the CDC report that on Tuesday Maine had 571 new cases of COVID-19, the highest daily total since late January.  Two additional deaths; hospitalizations on the rise.  We are seeing similar spikes around the country as well.  

“Don’t declare victory prematurely, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Monday.  “We’ve got to wait a big longer until we get enough vaccine into people that will clearly blunt any surge.”

We are in the time of in-between.  We are excited and expectant, impatient and ready to move on. And yes, amidst the sobering news of today, there is good news with the number us of who have had one or two vaccines on the rise.  

The preacher in me is reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah, 

“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”  (Isaiah 40:31)

What if now is an opportunity to not rush but reflect?….

What does it mean to come through this time wisely?

What lessons have we learned from this past year that we don’t want to forget?  

What practices do we want to continue?  

What might a new normal, a new ethos, look like when we gather together again?  Go well, be well.

And So, Let Us Rise

Thirty six of us gathered early this morning for our first public worship service on Sunday in over a year. It was wonderful to be here together to wait for a sunrise, celebrate Easter morning.  

This year, the Resurrection feels like perhaps it might be possible.  For some of us one, two vaccinations. On Wednesday, all Maine residents will be eligible to receive their vaccines.  Some of us are planning summer trips.  Gatherings with family and friends.  We are planning a return to public worship on May 30.  Checks are in the mail. Hopes for a summer season that might be a bit more like normal.

Last year we were weeks into a pandemic, in lock-down.  9,500 had died in the US. I preached about celebrating Easter in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1997 and how strange it felt to be celebrating Easter in a bleak and desolate time in Russia. It reminded me of life here last year.  

And as we gather today, there is a surge in new COVID cases in Maine and elsewhere.  

New scary variants.  

This month our children have been out of school due to a COVID exposure, some in quarantine, worried about getting sick.  

8.5 million of us don’t have jobs that had jobs last year at this time.

Over half a million Americans have died.  Over 2.8 million world-wide.

On this Easter Sunday we proclaim the mystery of a Christ who rises – and who rises with his wounds.

This year wounded us.  And some of us and some in our nation and world particularly and will continue to long after others of us have moved on.  Wounds that no vaccine will cure – systemic racism, a broken healthcare system, job loss, anxiety, addiction, violence…..

And the Christ who rises, rises in a new body.  Unrecognizable to his closest friends.  

Last March I felt fear of this unknown plague and what it might cost. The scars have been great.  

And I had a great hope that this virus might awaken us to see – to call us out to be a new people, new community in new ways.  

This Easter we need to rise as a wounded people whose wounds have called us to live and see in new ways for the sake of community and creation.

The world we rise into has great challenges – 

A creation in turmoil. We gathered for the sunrise service on the Gulf of Maine – the second fastest warming body of water in the world. 2020 gave us not just the pandemic but the West Coast’s worst fire season and the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record.  Near record-lows in Arctic sea ice, shattered heat records.

We saw systemic racism in George Floyd’s death and see it in Derek Chauvin’s trial. In voter suppression bills in 43 states.

See our addiction to violence in the killing of a Capitol Hill policeman, in three mass shootings in past weeks.

Broken economic and healthcare structures. A pandemic of loneliness, depression, isolation.

As the pandemic has worn on the desire for us to get back to normal has increased and I worry that the hope for radical positive change has subsided.  

But we can’t let it dissipate, we need to imagine a new way of life beyond this one – not a new normal but a new way of life to meet the chaotic world we’ve created.  To rise with Christ wounded, yes, and with a new body, new heart, mind, soul and strength to live in new ways.

In the words of Amanda Gorman,

So let us leave behind a country better than one we were left….

We will rise from the gold-limned hills of the West.  

We will rise from the wind-swept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.  

We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.  

We will rise from the sun-baked south.  

We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful.  

When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid.  The new dawn blooms as we free it.  For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.  

Excerpts from “The Hill We Climb”