Homily: What Gets Us Through

A few weeks ago, Barbara Child mentioned that she wouldn’t be going back to Kent for the 50 year commemoration of the killing of four students on the Commons at Kent State University. In a private Facebook group she shared some memories of that day in May, 1970, the sunny hillside, students protesting the escalation of the war in Vietnam, students on their way to class, the National Guard, and then the bullets flying and everyone left forever changed. Four died, others were deeply wounded and it seemed that everything changed.

I thought of the lines from Denise Levertov’s poem “Talking to Oneself” in which she laments about April as we wait for the winter to be over, feeling lost and tired, likening us to sheep being sheared as they await Spring that never comes. She describes it “walking underwater/in a lake stained by your blood.”

And then she comments:

there is nothing unique in your losses
your pain is commonplace
and your road ordained

I found myself thinking about survival, and what gets us through.

Human beings go through, have gone through very hard times. Very frightening times. I think about the elder in my congregation in England who described to how it was during the bombing of London. She and her family would shelter under the arches of a bridge, and when they got up in the mornings, her mother would say ‘run up the hill and see if the house is still there….’
And I wonder what gets us through hard times.

There were a couple of things stood out to me in Barbara’s reflections about that day and the years that followed.

First, what helped in the years of making sense of it and remembering it and commemorating it was learning the real story behind the gunfire. For years, the story that was told was that the young men were somehow spooked by something that happened and they opened fire. That was the official story, it was just a tragic turn of consequences, no one to blame, nothing to be done. The truth that came out eventually was that they had been following orders. They had been told to fire on the protesters. It was not a mistake or random, but intentional. And it wounded them all: the Guardsmen, the students, the bystanders, the country.

Seeing what is happening to us, around us, for all of humanity as this virus continues to spread, seeing the failures, the idiocies, along with the courage and dedication, the compassion, the heartbreak, the horror – seeing all of it, not denying, not minimizing, not awfulizing, but seeing these times as what they are is a part of making meaning out of it, and of finding our way through. It is surely not the best of times, but nor is it the worst of times, and especially for those of us who live with some stability, a place to sleep and food to eat, the luxuries of connection to others, even with all of the fear and loss. In the midst of this, keep looking at all of what is happening, knowing your place in it, recognizing it.

Second, in the years after those horrible moments in Kent, rituals have grown up around the killings. Tonight, as on May 3 for many years, there will be a candlelight procession through the campus to the site of the memorial, and a vigil will be held until tomorrow when the commemoration begins. In years past, it was led by 4 people carrying candles. This year it will be a single person. There will be shifts, as one after another stand on the site, holding space through until the dawn.

What can get us through this time is also something like this: small acts that can help us frame what is happening, and focus our hearts and attention. We light our chalice every Sunday, and I know many of you are doing the same at home. That simple act give us a pause, a time to find our center, to be prepared for a time of reflection. We can be intentional about creating that space for ourselves, too. It can be as simple as pausing in the day to pour a cup of tea and reflect. Consider the good news and the bad, weave it into something worthy. There is much to be fearful about, and much to be grateful for in this time. Remember courage. Remember kindness. Remember what there is to be grateful for, or at least, consider that gratitude will come eventually. Find that moment to pause. To breathe. To be in the moment in its complexity and joy.

Finally, I turn back to Denise Levertov, to remind us to look for ward to what will come next – because something WILL come next, even if it seems that this time has changed everything. She writes:

You are appalled go consider you may be destined
to live to a hundred.
But it’s April,

there is nothing unique in your losses
your pain is commonplace
and your road ordained:

your steps will hurt you
you will arrive
as usual

at some condition you name summer:

an ample landscape,
voluptuous, calm,
of large, very still trees,
water meadows, dream
savannah distances,

where you will gather strength
pulling ripe fruit from the boughs,
for winter and spring,
forgotten seasons.

Try to remember it is always this way.
You live
this April’s pain

you will come to other Aprils,
each will astonish you.

There is a “next” in this story, in this time we’re living through. The best news about that is that we get to make some choices about how we shall receive it and what it might look like even if only in our small lives. What have your learned that you will take with you? Not just how to make sourdough starter. Not only how to communicate on Zoom. What have you learned about yourself? What have you learned about the world? What do you see now that you hadn’t before? What must you keep? What can you let go?

Though this time of isolating and death and disease may feel fallow, it is also a time of ripening, of becoming, of possibility. What will you make of this, what will you do in these moments with your one wild and precious life?