Lent 3, March 15, 2020
The positive role of negative space
In a recent post from Anne Boyer: “The way social [or physical] distancing works requires faith: we must begin to see the negative space as clearly as the positive, to know what we don’t do as clearly as the positive, to know what we don’t do is also brilliant and full of love. We face such a strange task, here, to come together in spirit and keep a distance in body at the same time. We can do it.” (Anne Boyer, "This Virus," https://mirabilary.substack.com/p/this-virus)
This is part of our response to the outbreak of COVID-19 or Corona Virus, thinking about how taking physical distance, taking precautions, is part of our love of neighbour. We do this not simply out of self-preservation, not out of selfishness, but out of love for those who are most vulnerable. These include people whose immune systems are compromised, people who are already sick, people with disabilities, people who are home bound and at risk from further social isolation.
I am struck by the idea of seeing negative space as something positive and affirming. Sharing the peace with a bow or nod is not a lesser form of acknowledging one another’s humanity. People choosing to stay home for their and other’s safety is also an affirming and loving action.
In our gospel reading today we hear Jesus navigating social and physical space in surprising ways. We hear the surprise of the Samaritan woman that a Jewish man would meet her at a public well. Jesus is crossing boundaries that in ancient times a Jewish man would not ask for a drink of water from a Samaritan woman, observing laws around ritual purity. Transgressing these social and religious boundaries, Jesus opens up creative space for a different kind of conversation to take place. Through a series of questions and answers, Jesus and the Samaritan woman talk about something other than a drink of water, the promise of living water which is a gift from God. Water which quenches thirst once and for all in a way that taking a drink of literal water requires repetition. We also need the repetition of literal water, offering one another a drink to stay hydrated. In fact a nursing student told us all at Wine Before Supper, staying hydrated is one way we fight the spread of the Corona virus, to strengthen our bodies and immune systems. This is an opportunity for us to hear the creative space in this exchange in the gospel reading. Thinking about the living water Jesus is talking about, for us as Christians reminds us of baptism, and our calling to love and serve one another. I think about the kinds of negative space we are observing out of love. Public health crises have the capacity to bring out both the best and worst in us as humans. It is easy to retreat in a “my family and me” knee-jerk responses in which we rush to the nearest bunker and hunker down. In fact some wealthy people will be doing just that. Leveraging their financial privilege to get away to a remote home, whether by yacht or private plane. Even the ability to stock up on several weeks of food, which we have been instructed to do on the island as general preparation for emergency, is not something everyone can afford. People in shared living arrangements don’t all have pantries or freezers they can stock, and some people cannot afford the up front cost, relying on regular trips to the grocery store. Any of us with the privilege at making a shopping run to Costco or other large store know that $50 doesn’t get you very far if you are expected to shop for several weeks of food for an entire family.
Nevertheless on the flip side as people of God we also have the capacity of rising to the challenge. We can step into our callings around leadership both as church and in our individual lives, living out our gospel calling in our neighbourhoods.
From the same article quoted earlier, Anne Boyer writes: “We must learn to do good for the good of the stranger now. We now have to live as daily evidence that we believe there is value in the lives of the cancer patient, the elderly person, the disabled one, the ones in unthinkable living conditions, crowded and at risk.” (Anne Boyer) You could add to this list people who are homeless, made further invisible given the increased needs of so many people. Even as we look to decrease physical contact, we have an opportunity to check in on people, including delivering groceries, medicines. Sometimes just checking in and asking if people are okay is significant in itself. People want to feel seen and heard, knowing someone is thinking about people. Part of loneliness is the fear that no one cares. I know many of you check in on one another. Please continue doing this valuable ministry, even if it’s a phone call, text, e-mail, or conversation in the doorway.
Often we hear about the numbers around potential pandemics. The fear of viruses spreading exponentially, which necessitates the need for negative or physical distance. There is another kind of exponential increase as well in a hopeful sense. That of exponential love. In the gospel story the Samaritan woman leaves her water jar and astonished she heads back to the city to share the good news with everyone she meets. This opportunity for loving responses increasing is something to cheer us during times in which people are struggling with depression, isolation, and anxiety. Even small acts of love encourage others in turn to reciprocate kindness. We tend to be buoyed by the examples of leadership and public witness.
What are ways we as church and children of God may live into a pandemic of love? Once we get beyond the scarcity thinking of self-preservation, particularly those of us with greater privilege of mobility and health, we can imagine ways of encouraging negative space, increase the Spirit’s work in the world.
Singing in Times of Uncertainty
In these times of uncertainty one thing that can help center us and bring us joy is singing. I experienced this Thursday evening for Lenten vespers here at Church of the Cross. While our numbers were small, there was ample sharing about the gospel reading. Above all what stood out to me was the singing led by Grady, Brian on piano, and Aaron and Richard on guitar. Both the high musician to participant ratio and quality of the music leadership was wonderful. The lines of the evening prayer setting prayerfully led us towards comfort, peace, and joy at the end of a long day and week. A time at which the news about the health crisis unfolds hourly. And yet some of us gathered lifting up the whole community in prayer. A reminder that where two or three are gathered together, Christ is with us. A reminder that a little yeast leavens the whole loaf. We don’t all need to be physically present for prayer to be effective. One more way in which we are lifting one another up, remembering one another, caring for one another, even through physical absence. The work of the Spirit traversing physical space. There have also been stories emerging from Italy, among the hardest countries hit with COVID-19, especially given their older population. Given quarantine restrictions many Italians have taken to singing from their balconies to lift one another’s spirits. The simple act of singing in the midst of a pandemic is a sign of resilience. It’s a sign of the gift of music elevating us above the everyday realities. Singing is one kind of self-care, whatever our ability or training.
Take that with you if you need a spark of joy, that you have the gift of song, both here at church, and on your own. Whether you sing along to the radio, sing a child a simple lullaby, even if you never admit admit to another person that you sing. It can be a secret between you and God.
Wrapping up, let us see the positive in reclaiming negative space. Ways in which we are called as Christians to live into love by taking physical distance, while reaffirming social connection.
Think about concrete steps you can do this week that affirm both physical distance, while checking in on people, and drawing us closer together.
Listen to public health experts. Together we follow queues from people professionally changed in controlling infectious disease in order to make the world a better place for all our neighbour.
Remember Jesus traversing boundaries, reclaiming space in our gospel reading. People who are considered taboo, homeless people, people in care homes, people socially isolated, who need our love and support. Know that in the midst of everything that is happening, God love s you, care for you, and together as the body of Christ we are rising to the challenges of our times. Amen.