I left home very early that morning to prepare for the 8 a.m. Eucharist at the parish I served, driving in a dense fog. As I approached the church, I began to detect unusual shapes on the lawn where there should not be any! I was concerned, as we had a special service planned for later in the morning. Could this be rummage strewn on the lawn that no one had picked up after the sale yesterday? Was it garbage? As I came closer, the shapes resolved themselves into something that had me laughing with delight—and embarrassment. The shapes were in homage to my birthday (which was, unusually, on that Sunday)!
A family of plastic lawn skunks was on one side—and my canoeing buddies had set up a tent, canoe and paddles on the other. Later, in the service during the announcements, to my utter surprise, a large “bear” threw open the back door of the church—and marched up the aisle to give me a bear hug for my birthday.
Why am I recalling this now as we emerge from the pandemic? That dense morning fog reminds me of what we face in our current time. We cannot see into the future clearly, and even what is right here now is murky. We have begun to worship in person in some places—and to sing in some again. But the pandemic is not over yet, and the long-term effects of the virus and all its impacts on us are being slowly revealed.
Not least of these are its effects on the mental health and strength of many who are weary and worried about the future.
Anxiety is high, and it can be easy to catastrophize the future, to believe it will not be better but only worse. We can fear that our churches will not survive; that our clergy will burn out and leave and that decline is inevitable; and we can sink into the grief of all the losses. This fear and grief are on top of the fears aroused by climate change disasters and personal struggles. We can find ourselves in a spiral of despair that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
My birthday experience came to mind because, out of my fears and anxiety then, I discovered delight and joy. I was reminded that friends and community gather around us to bring light and hope when these are least expected; that though the fog may be dense, what lies ahead may be good and life-giving. I am equally certain that the same is true now as we emerge from the “fog” of the pandemic. We cannot be sure there will not be hard times, but we can trust God and find delight in the reminders—however small or seemingly insignificant, or particular only to our context—of God’s presence and grace in people around us, in community and in God’s wider world and creation. It may just be that what lies ahead will be more than we could ask or imagine; that it will be encouraging and life-giving; that it will bring new life out of death—and that we will continue to be surprised by the Spirit!
Throughout Epiphany we have celebrated the ways in which God was revealed through Jesus Christ in the world—recognized by the least, the strangers and those in need. As the fog dissipates and the outlines of the future are revealed, may we see past our fears and be ready to welcome whatever new ways of living the gospel are revealed to us.