Pandemic reflection on a pin oak tree

The requirement to work and teach from home this spring afforded me close observations of goings-on in my small back yard. The daily experiences of watching nature in the yard during this time of pandemic disruption provided quiet means to think about what we can and cannot control in our lives of vocation. Another spring of harsh weather caused me to ponder whether the life of a little pin oak tree might serve as an image of vocation.

Spring 2020 has not been kind to the young pin oak tree I planted more than three years ago. One morning in March, about the time I started working from home, several birds nipped off almost all of the branch tips. I watched them do this, in a matter of minutes, and refrained from intervening because I wasn’t certain whether or not the incident was naturally beneficial to the tree. Almost two months later, in early May, a hard, overnight frost killed all of the tree’s emerging leaves. This particular tree has survived much in its short life.

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Resiliency vs. Audacity

“We hear a lot of chatter these days about the importance of resilience in higher education — now more than ever as COVID-19 continues to disrupt the lives of students. I’ve come to find it an insipid concept.” These are the opening words of a provocative short essay by Piedmont College professor Carson Webb which appeared recently on the Australian Broadcasting Portal (ABC)’s Religion and Ethics portal. Titled “Against Resilience,” Carson goes on to describe an encounter with a young man named Emilio whose life story helped him reconsider the much-touted virtue of resilience.

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The Pandemic Mirror

These days, we barely recognize our lives: teleconferencing in sweat pants, teaching skeletal versions of our classes, socializing and exercising only through screens. Yet in some ways the pandemic is a mirror in which we and our communities are reflected with vivid, urgent clarity. We know what matters now, in our teaching and our friendships, our families, in the places we live. We know what matters to our leaders: we see politics playing out with stark and immediate consequences. We see the usually opaque mechanisms of access, equity, race and privilege made visible in who gets tested, who gets care, who gets sick and who dies. We are watching ourselves rise to the occasion, so many of us voluntarily exceeding the directives of our mayors, governors and president. We are seeing what remains when so much is swept away.

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The Economy and Ecology of Neighbor Love

My vote for the press photo of the year would be the one taken by Joshua Bickel on April 13 and circulated widely since. Covering a Coronavirus response update from within the Ohio Statehouse, the photojournalist turned his camera toward the angry protesters with flags, red Trump hats, and masks outside—freeze-framing their raw rage and shouts of protest over stay-at-home orders.

The photo captures some of the painful divisions and complex ironies of our political/economic/cultural fabric—including, here, the irony of “law-and-order” conservatives defying local laws and taking to the streets, the President goading them on. One hopes that the new activists will gain some measure of empathy for more experienced protesters within Black Lives Matter, MeToo, or immigrants’ rights movements. One hopes, too, that liberals quick to relish in their anger can see also the real pain and anxiety underneath it. We may yet find ways to connect.

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Grief as the Garden of Compassion

The profound connection between grief and compassion can easily be forgotten, especially when we grow impatient with the long fingers of grief’s grasp (on ourselves, or others). I was reminded of their connection by Colleen Dunne, the Director of Campus Ministry at Saint Martin’s University in Washington State, who participated in a recent Zoom conversation among NetVUE campus ministers and afterward shared a piece she had written for her campus community. It begins with a quotation from Rumi:

Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.

Jalalu’ddin Rumi
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Life in the Resurrection Zone: Vocation in the midst of pandemic

For most of us right now, there’s one question and one question only. Appropriate to vocation, it’s a Big Question: When will things get back to normal? 

When will we be able to gather in classrooms and places of worship again?  When will restaurants open again for more than take-out? When can we lose the masks, the hand sanitizer, the sand-papery hands? When will we be able to hold open doors, to shake hands, hug our loved ones? When will things get back to normal? Pay attention to that Big Question, as we move through these final weeks of the semester. The Resurrection Zone offers some surprising responses.

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Vocation in a Time of Coronavirus: Reflections from C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in Wartime”

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, after an entire day spent reading anxiety-inducing articles and watching real-time maps of the spread, after loading up on quarantine supplies, and unable to banish a storm of doomsday hypothetical scenarios from my head, a passage from a C.S. Lewis’ sermon, “Learning in Wartime,” flashed through my mind:

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice… We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal… We think of the streets of Warsaw and contrast the deaths there suffered with an abstraction called Life. But there is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that—of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later. What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased… Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in Wartime” (1939).

That night I read the entire piece and found myself greatly fortified by it’s cool reason in the face of fear and anxiety—it reminded me of Wendell Berry’s remark that when you’re scared the best thing to do is try to make sense out of what’s scaring you—and the perspective it gave me on life and vocation in times of crisis, fear, and danger. Within a week, all on-campus classes and activities were canceled, we converted to an online format, and, when I had to assign the first reading for my senior Humanities and Vocation seminar, I chose “Learning in Wartime.” The response from my seniors was astounding. It was, in fact, the single best response I have ever gotten from students to a reading on the topic of vocation. They seemed in particular to resonate with three aspects of the sermon.

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An Easter Meditation on Calling

Take away Easter, and hope dies. Take away Easter, and darkness prevails. Take away Easter, and all the sorrow and suffering, all the grief and affliction, all the tears and travail, stand forever unanswered. Take away Easter, and death wins, because if God cannot free Jesus from the tomb, how can there be lasting life—unassailable life—for anyone?

Over the past few months, the world has been shrouded in death. The plague unleashed by COVID-19 has ignited so much fear, so much anxiety and stress and uncertainty, that it is easy to feel that death is winning. How can it not be when each day brings more images of graves hurriedly dug so that more bodies can fill them? How can it not be when people who were thrown suddenly out of work wonder how they can pay their bills and feed their families? How can it not be when a virus not only squeezes every breath of life from a person, but assures that they will die alone?

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Neighboring and Sheltering in Place

I’m writing this the morning of the fourth Sunday of Lent. The gospel lesson is the story of the man born blind, whom an un-beckoned Jesus hastens to heal as the disciples debate over who is to blame for his condition. My family will have “family church” at 10:30 this morning over chorizo egg bake, which I promised to the boys last night.

My state is one of the first five to receive an executive order to “stay at home.” The governor didn’t use the term, “shelter in place,” given that the phrase conjures frightening images of active shooters and classroom lockdowns in many people’s minds. For me, to shelter seems much more accurate to the purposeful action asked of us. Deriving from the word shield, to shelter is to take guard—and more so, to protect those who need guarding, as in providing lodging for the homeless poor or taking in stray animals. My having put egg bake in the oven and my spouse’s designing word games for the kids and our family bike rides each makes shelter for our family.

The difficulty is how to shield those who are not already under our roof. Whom else will I be summoned to shelter? What can hospitality look like across property lines or at distances of six feet? These may turn out to be my versions of the lawyer’s question to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

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Called to a Pedagogy of the Cross

“Lebenskreuz,” or “Cross of Life,” depicting the Seven Acts of Mercy found in Matthew 25:35-40. Wartburg College campus.

“These are the days of maximum grace.”

This is what I found myself telling my students repeatedly over the past four weeks. As our life together turned upside down and inside out because of the coronavirus pandemic, deadlines faded away, boundaries dissolved, campus became a ghost town, home became school, and we all experienced repeated seismic shocks.

The last day I was in a classroom with students was Friday, March 13. Rather than being unlucky, the day was a gift—to be in a room with them (the last time for how long?!), talking in-person about the online move I anticipated us making. One student came late to class still nursing tears over an injury suffered during what would become the last athletic practice of a college career, freshly stung with the news of cancelled spring sports seasons. Another student in another class wrote a note on the back of a reading quiz, where normally I encourage doodles and puppy cartoons as they wait for others to finish, saying plainly “just let us leave Wartburg please.” These were the days where the situation changed daily, sometimes even hourly. Administrators struggled to keep up with the current best advice from elected officials and public health experts, because what was “best advice” kept changing.

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