Sermon: Safety, Control, Life, Death

Matthew 6:25-33

This is the second of an occasional sermon series entitled “How to Survive a Pandemic”

As you know, I made the difficult decision recently to fly to Ohio to officiate my nephew’s outdoor wedding and also to see my 91-year-old father, who lives in an assisted living apartment in a Mennonite retirement community. There was no official visiting policy at the time I was there, ever since the governor of Ohio mandated a lockdown of those sorts of facilities. However, my wily Dad had worked out an unofficial visiting policy with staff, where he would stand on an outdoor second floor balcony and we would be 20 feet below him. No chance of us expelling COVID-laden droplets or aerosols up that far.

My Dad is physically doing great but, emotionally, it’s challenging. He and the other residents there, he said, feel trapped, like they are prisoners. (Actually, prisoners have it far worse, but he was expressing an emotional truth.) They are allowed to go outside the building for daily walks on the grounds, but they are not allowed to talk to anyone they meet. If they do, permission to do the walks may be withdrawn. These walks are keeping my Dad sane, and he is fearful that the walks will be “outlawed.” If they leave the facility for a doctor’s appointment or to visit a family member, they have to quarantine for two weeks afterward, which means complete isolation for the duration. No walks outside. No strolls down the hall. Food would be brought to their door. Because of the restrictiveness of this quarantine, most people who live there are trying not to leave the facility for any reason. My Dad hasn’t seen a doctor for months, and even though he has a chipped tooth and a possible skin cancer on his arm, he’s not going to make medical appointments until it gets really dire.  Many of the folks there have not seen their family since the middle of March.  

My Dad says that all of the residents he talks to say they’d rather risk getting COVID than living the last year or two of their lives separated from family and isolated. “We all know we’re going to die,” he told me, “and we’re at peace with that. We really don’t care if it’s from COVID or something else.” But, they don’t want to die of loneliness. My Dad’s informal survey of the residents of Walnut Hills is corroborated by a psychiatrist, as reported by philosopher Charles Eisenstein in a recent essay. The psychiatrist said: “Being quarantined in the room and isolated from family is causing massive amounts of invisible suffering and declines as well as deaths (among the elderly). I can’t tell you how many anguished family members have told me that it’s not COVID that is killing their loved one — it’s the restrictions.” 

Talking with my Dad and pondering his predicament has got me thinking about safety, control, life and death in a time of pandemic.  You know, small topics. I have found the writings of Eisenstein to be helpful as I ponder these things. I don’t always agree with him, but I appreciate the way he challenges my conventional thinking, the way he widens the frame from a regular-sized window a picture window instead. I think this is because Eisenstein often brings in perspectives from Indigenous and traditional peoples around the world, and these perspectives almost always widen my own. I will link to two of his essays that I’m drawing upon for this sermon. Those essays go into much more detail and nuance than I can in this short reflection.

I find much of this same “frame-widening” wisdom in the Bible, with our Scripture passage for today being a wonderful example. I’m not going to make a direct connection between this sermon and that Scripture. But I couldn’t stop thinking of it as I was pondering these topics and writing this sermon. So, I offer the passage from Matthew about the lilies of the field as a companion piece to this sermon.

Some of what things I’m going to say might sound somewhat controversial, especially in a time when almost anything you say about pandemic precautions and public safety is politicized in the most polarized way possible (love the alliteration and, no, I didn’t even try — the sentence just came out that way). In fact, I feel a bit vulnerable giving this sermon because it questions assumptions found in our society and, I think, in this community. In addition, people are scared right now and we’re more jumpy than usual; we’re all navigating something that few of us alive have had to navigate before. That fear and uncertainty breeds a tendency to more quickly judge each other’s choices. I know I felt the need to highlight that my nephew’s wedding was outdoors because I feared, well, your judgement around my choice to attend, even though I largely experience us as a non-judgmental community. Please do not hear me saying that I think we should abandon social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing. My aim is only to widen the frame and bring in some ideas that, to me, are rooted in spiritual values that should be considered as we consider how to survive a pandemic.

We already know this pandemic is affecting different people differently. The most prominent example of this, and rightly so, is the way that Black and Brown people and lower wage workers (who are often the same people) are getting COVID and dying from it more than others. As a society, we have to continue to advocate for the safety of those most at risk. I and folks from our community recently stood in solidarity with McDonald’s workers striking in Oakland, demanding that they be provided basic protective gear. This is essential solidarity for essential workers and essential people.

And there are other kinds of vulnerability, too, besides physical health. There is emotional and spiritual vulnerability that comes from isolation and loneliness, from young children having most of their social interactions come from screens. Unfortunately, this pandemic has exacerbated the emotional and spiritual vulnerability many people in our society already experience because of our society’s extreme individualism, its tendency toward isolation, and the increasing digitalization of relationships — vulnerabilities experienced especially by the very young, the very old and the already isolated and lonely. These emotional and spiritual vulnerabilities are somewhat devalued, I think, in mainstream thinking and policies. As Eisenstein says, “Much of the public discourse, from healthcare to foreign policy, revolves around safety, security and risk. COVID-19 policy also centers on how to prevent as many deaths as possible and how to keep people safe. Values such as the immeasurable benefits of children’s play… of physical touch and human togetherness are not part of the calculations. Why?”

One reason, he says, is that these immeasurables elude calculation, and our policies are based largely on numbers, on data, on what we can quantify.  How do you measure the number of deaths due to isolation? How do you measure the amount of mental illness based on lack of physical touch? It’s much easier to track the number of infections and deaths related to COVID. That kind of information fits into our data-driven, scientific way of thinking. But what happens within this thinking is that we then tend to value or pay attention only to what we can measure. This is the big problem, in my and many other people’s opinion, with school testing. What we measure becomes what we value, what we make policy around. But how do you measure creativity or a sense of community or curiosity — all things that our schools should be fostering but that are largely immeasurable and, thus, not valued as highly as test scores?

For Eisenstein, however, the questions go deeper than just valuing only what we can measure. They get to questions of safety and control. As Eisenstein says, “Over my lifetime, I’ve seen society place more and more emphasis on safety, security and risk reduction. It has especially impacted childhood: as a young boy it was normal for us to roam a mile from home unsupervised — behavior that would earn parents a visit from Child Protective Services today.” Different cultures than our white, Western culture have vastly different ideas about what children should be allowed to do and how much risk they should be allowed to take. Even different eras have different ideas about this. In the rural Amish Mennonite community in which I grew up 50 years ago, my brothers regularly interacted with BB guns, shot guns and Honda 70 motorcycles. Even as I’m saying this, I find myself thinking: “What the heck were my parents thinking? I would never let Patrick do that.” But what is lost in this emphasis on safety first? As Eisenstein notes, emphasizing safety prioritizes survival and non-injury over other values like “fun, adventure, play and the challenging of limits.”

This emphasis on safety, risk management and control extends beyond parenting. It also manifests, says Eisenstein, in the form of “latex gloves for more and more professions… locked, guarded and surveilled school buildings; intensified airport and border security; heightened awareness of legal liability and liability insurance; metal detectors and searches before entering many sports arenas and public buildings, and so on. Writ large, it takes the form of the security state,” he says. 

And the questions go even deeper still. My Dad was raising fundamental questions about life and death: What is the point of life? Is it to prolong it as long as possible? And what do we think about death? How much do we fear it? How far do we go to postpone it? Again, different cultures have very different understandings about all of this. Eisenstein was talking to a friend, a medical doctor who had spent time with the indigenous Q’ero people in Peru. He asked his friend if the Q’ero would ever intubate someone to prolong their life, if that was a possibility for them. “Of course not,” she said. “They would summon the shaman to help him die well.” In other words, they would not want their loved one to “be in an ICU, isolated from loved ones with a machine breathing for them, at risk of dying alone, even if that means it might increase their chance of survival.” 

The Amish Mennonite community in which I grew up also held different attitudes toward death from the dominant culture. Death was in the hands of God, and if someone died — especially if it was a more tragic death, like a young person dying in a hunting or farming accident — then people took comfort in the fact that that was the will of God. They didn’t try to know why it might be God’s will; they knew they couldn’t possibly know that. Folks I grew up with were less likely to take every safety precaution possible because they saw this as exerting too much human control over life and death issues that they saw as being firmly in God’s hands. Now, I rejected big chunks of that theology at a pretty young age for a whole lot of reasons, but the older I get, the more I am reclaiming aspects of my community’s wisdom about our inevitable mortality, about humility, about what it means to be yielded to the will of the Creator.

We don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last. Some folks think it’s going to extend well beyond 2021. And even if we have a vaccine by next spring, others believe it’s likely that — in our climate changing world — other infectious diseases like COVID-19 will become a more regular part of our experience. Given this, Eisenstein says, “It is not hard to imagine that emergency measures will become normal (so as to forestall the possibility of another outbreak), just as the state of emergency declared after 9/11 is still in effect today…. This means that the temporary changes in our way of life may become permanent.”

As we contemplate this possible future, I think it’s important to stop, reflect on and discuss with each other these fundamental questions of safety, control, life and death. I think it’s important to widen the frame to see more than our dominant Western culture’s particular response to these fundamental questions and see what wisdom we may be able to draw from other communities and from our own faith. 

May the Spirit continue to guide us as we seek God’s will in these times Amen.