Opening the Gate – 5/30/21

Besides the fear that accompanied the pandemic, the area of my life which was most affected was my relationships.  Having left the church I was pastoring the previous July and begun my residency, I was already experiencing some sense of isolation.  So much of my life had been devoted the relationships in that community, and I felt a deep sense of loss.  Because I frequently worked on Sundays, I did not start attending a new faith community. And then the pandemic hit.  It was no longer possible to interact with a new community, or even see my existing friends or parents.

Like all of you, my circle became incredibly small – limited to just my immediate family.  And that small circle was experiencing a high level of stress.  I suddenly became a teacher, creating a new dynamic with my son.  Especially in the early days, the way we both interacted with my wife changed.  Not knowing the likelihood of her contracting the virus at work and passing it to one of us, she took extra precautions to keep her distance.  And the stress of caring for so many dying patients with the real possibility of catching it herself took a toll on her emotionally.  I became a jail warden for my parents, doing all I could to keep them safe within their home.  So much of my energy was directed to taking care of my immediate family that I had no energy left to devote to others.  I grew disconnected from my friends.  To some extent, I lost a desire to form new relationships.  People meant risk, and because of my job and my wife’s job, I presented a risk to them.

Shifts in relationships became a common side effect of the pandemic.  34 percent of Americans report their relationships with friends became less connected, compared to 15 percent who became closer with friends. In addition, more than half of Americans reported making no new friends over the past year. More than 70 percent of Americans say their relationships with family changed, with 22 percent feeling less connected from their family. However, 30 percent believe the pandemic brought their family closer together.

Living in lockdown has required us to have close and constant contact with our partners and immediate families, while social distancing requirements have forced a separation from our wider community.  Relationships have become strained.  Some of us had been in relationship with people who reacted differently to the pandemic – people who failed to take it seriously, who became angry when we enforced social distancing guidelines, who resisted wearing a mask.  Even after our vaccinations, the rifts these disagreements created continue to linger.

But for some, the pandemic has had an unexpected effect of seeking out relationships which have fallen apart.  The loneliness of isolation has led some to reflect on the reasons friendships have been broken and to be increasingly open to reconciliation.  The trauma and stress of wondering whether we will survive or how the world will continue opened some of us up to being a little more vulnerable.

For many of us, our values and focus have shifted during the pandemic.  And re-engaging with people who have not experienced such a shift is anxiety producing.  Will people expect us to snap back into pre-pandemic ways of relating with one another?  If we could, would we want that?  Or have we changed in such a way that those relationships may no longer function for us.

Emerging from the pandemic also means an end to the way we have been doing church, at least in some respects.  Returning to in-person worship is an exciting prospect for some, but for others less so.  Zoom is pretty convenient – no need to put on special clothes, no need to drive, no need to even turn your camera on and be seen in case you want to multi-task.  And, as some people commented last week, church will look different now.  And it may never be exactly the same again.  One thing we will be examining is offering a hybrid service, so those who have been able to join us on zoom but could not in person will still have that option.  But most of you have not seen one other in more than a year.  Many of you have never met me in person.  After such a long break from the way things used to be, and with the anticipation of a new normal, returning in person may have lost some of its luster.

As we heard in our second reading, when we are separated from all of the people who fill our daily lives we sometimes recognize the people who really matter, who stitch our lives together.  I recently read an article about how the four noble truths of Buddhism apply to relationships.  And perhaps these can give us a framework to reflect on our relationships with family, friends, and our community as we reconnect with them.  The first is acceptance of the idea that relationships are uncomfortable.  It is the nature of any relationship. Being in any relationship involves fear – fear of being disappointed, hurt, ignored, misunderstood, unappreciated.  And this will not change.  This characterizes all relationships, even happy ones.  While the pandemic may have resulted in discomfort for new reasons, we can recognize that discomfort is a norm which we cannot remove.

The second principle is that it is in seeking to make relationships comfortable that they become uncomfortable.  Our relationships are inevitably impacted by our own insecurities and the insecurities of the other.  But rather than assigning blame when those insecurities result in a disconnection, we can choose kindness.  We can become curious about what is leading to our conflict.  We can shift from our desire for comfort in a relationship to a desire for depth.  Even with those who approached the pandemic differently, as we say in our Geography of Grace groups, we can turn to wonder rather than judgment – wonder about what underlying fears brought them to their position, wonder about what our reaction teaches us about ourselves.

This is in essence the third principle, meeting the discomfort together allows for the growth of love for the other.  Being unable to create safety, working through the uncertainty in a relationship allows for a deeper intimacy to develop.  At a time when so many people thirst for connection, emerging from the pandemic allows all of us opportunities to foster relationships we may have overlooked before.

As we heard in our first reading, this is true for our community as we seek to grow as well.  The Christian community at that time was in the midst of a crisis.  The persecution of Christians takes a new turn. And the community is fearful of what will happen to them.  We read that Herod “laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church.” And to make matters worse, Herod goes after their leaders.  The leader of the church, Peter, is arrested during the festival of unleavened bread.  This was a festival that was celebrated on the seven days after Passover, a time when the community was remembering Jesus’ death and was in need of leadership and comfort.  And during this time of grief and remembrance, the church suffers a new sense of loss.

Notice what happens when Peter is freed from his bondage, when he realizes that he has been rescued him from the hands of Herod.  What is the first thing that he does?  He does not find a safe place to hide to make sure he is not recaptured.  He does not rush off to indulge in things he missed out on while in prison.  We read that “as soon as he realized this” he went to his community.

When Peter arrives back to his community, there is a break in the drama of this story.  He knocks at the outer gate, and a woman named Rhoda answers the door.  When she hears Peter’s voice, she is so excited that she runs in to tell everyone else before she even opens the gate for Peter.  And Peter just stands at the gate to keep knocking.  If I were Peter, I would not be pleased.  I am sure he felt some urgency to get in that gate.  He had just escaped, and he had every reason to believe that guards would be sent out to search for him.  Standing outside the gate, he was a sitting target.

Like that community gathered behind the locked gate, it can be scary when we consider the prospect of opening our gate.  Rather than persecution, we have other reasons to stay behind the gate.  We don’t know who may walk through our doors who has not been vaccinated, who will be unwilling to follow the precautions.  Even beyond the pandemic, we may fear how our community will change if there are too many new faces, that we will lose some of the intimacy we enjoy as a small community.

But there are people behind that gate like Peter.  Like Peter, they may feel bound by burdens, unable to move forward.  Like Peter, they may feel completely isolated in their pain.  When they look to their left and right, they do not see hands lifting them up but chains holding them down – chains of insecurity, of isolation, of hopelessness.

The end of the pandemic creates new opportunities as many seek to fill the relationship void that has been left in its wake.  And the way we seek to fill that void will need to shift.  Many people are thirsty for a sense of connection, but they are also fearful and vulnerable.

And we can make the same mistake as Peter’s community.  Like those who gathered in behind the gate, we may pray for others that we are concerned about.  We may be genuinely concerned about them.  But sometimes the need they have is a much more urgent need.  A need to be let in through the gate, a need for people to be present with them, the need to be surrounded by community rather than be left knocking outside.  Even as we face our own shifts in relationships, may we be willing to open our gate, to be a community which leaves no one knocking outside, but invites them in to provide a much needed sense of safety after a time of great fear.