The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
By nature, I’m someone who tries to think optimistically. I attempt to track down sugar and water to make lemonade with the lemons life gives, and then to pour a partial glass of lemonade and consider it half-full instead of half-empty.
This pandemic, though, is giving my optimism a run for its money. I’m realizing that we don’t have the answers, the solutions, or even the ingredients for lemonade.
We are in a time when the old, tried-and-true answers don’t work. All of us — teachers, accountants, clergy, HR folks, factory workers, healthcare workers, attorneys, restaurant workers — have been given a brand-new set of challenges that require us to think in different ways.
Ron Heifetz at the Kennedy School at Harvard famously defines the tried-and-true solutions as being applicable to what he calls “technical challenges” — the problems that have a straight-forward fix. You see a lightbulb has burned out, and you replace it. But the situation that all of us are finding ourselves in right now requires out-of-the-box thinking, lots of experimentation and making mistakes, learning as we go. Heifetz refers to this as an “adaptive challenge.” One of the facets of adaptive challenges is that working toward solutions tends not to come from a single expert viewpoint, but from a large body of stakeholders experimenting together and learning from successes and failures.
So, that’s one of the factors that makes living through this pandemic challenging to us. We’re all having to realign our priorities, the way we spend our time and money, finding ways not to become too isolated from the world, and do things differently. You and I are having to figure out new ways to be a community of faith and to maintain our sense of spiritual connection.
Yet, with all of these challenges, we also encounter some opportunities as we do thing in new ways.
If you’ve spent any time perusing the news or flipping through Facebook, you may have seen a few before-and-after photographs of visible air pollution in major cities around the world. I’ve downloaded one, so that you can see for yourself what the atmosphere has looked like in Delhi. We know from personal experience that people are not driving or flying as much as we did. In major European cities, nitrogen dioxide levels have dropped 30-60 percent. That reduction in our use of fossil fuels — not just in transportation, but in industrial production — has had an impact on air quality.
I don’t want to neglect the fact that people are ill with and dying of Covid-19, that millions have become unemployed, that small businesses are struggling mightily, and that many of us have seen retirement savings and other investments tank. But you know the bad news already.
About seven weeks ago, when we were hearing about Covid-19 in China and Italy, my friend, Mike, in Masters Swim class made the comment, “Maybe the planet is telling us we need to unplug it for a few weeks and then try restarting it.” I’ve continued to think about that in the ensuing weeks.
One of the resources that we have in the midst of this crisis is scripture, which can function as a dialogue partner, a comfort, a challenge, a source of stability. I hope that you have a practice of reading the Bible regularly, but in case you don’t, here is something that got me wondering. Both in Exodus and in our reading from Leviticus today, we read about the need of the earth to have a sabbath. The planet needs a break, and the prescribed amount of time is one year out of seven, a sabbath year. What if we are giving God’s planet an unintentional sabbath? Could we make an environmental sabbath intentional?
When you think about the way Orthodox Jews observe the sabbath each week, doing no work, no cooking, no driving to synagogue and living within walking distance — it’s one day a week set aside exclusively for God and community. One day is about 14% of a week. Imagine the impact of God’s planet if we would observe sabbath and reduce humanity’s use of fossil fuels and other sources of pollution by 14%.
Too often, we in developed nations have wasted and taken for granted the opulence of a lifestyle that is very hard on the environment, whether it’s driving a long commute or flying as often as we do, or using paper towels and plastic bags in our kitchens with reckless abandon. We have had a lifestyle that is not worthy of God’s trust in us as stewards. I’m not saying we can never use paper towels or fly anywhere…but what if, in addition to advances in solar and wind power, we gave God’s world an environmental sabbath and cut back by 14%? Maybe telecommuting, online meetings, further investment in renewable energy are a sensible first step, and we’ve proved we can do it.
Personally, there are some things I have liked over the past month, like not having to drive as much and spending more time cooking and baking. I have loved seeing Plymouth members do grocery shopping for others, sew masks for other people, offer to do tech support over the phone, and stay in touch with intergenerational pen pals. I love that our deacons and others are in the process of calling every member of the congregation to check in. Many of us are spending more time doing things like taking walks, offering help to our neighbors, connecting with people, really appreciating and thanking essential workers. And some of us are finding that we get a sense of joy from that shift.
What are the things that you have rediscovered or realized for the first time during this pandemic — activities or ways of being that nourish your soul? How will you hold onto those positive aspects of your life after the pandemic?
As we look ahead, we get to make an intentional choice about the kind of changed world we want to rebuild and create. We can decide that we want to return to the previous North American cycle of rushing everywhere, pushing the limits of our physical and mental health, living life as a highly leveraged business model that has no room for breathing, and destroying God’s planet. We can opt for that. But we don’t have to.
There is an old saying: “Never waste a good conflict,” and that can be really helpful for removing a log-jam in a relationship or in a congregation that is stuck. And I think we have a new corollary in our midst: “Never waste a global crisis.”
This is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink our priorities, our lives, our faith, our place in God’s world. We can examine the things that are working, whether it’s realizing who is an “essential” worker, our city providing shelter for homeless people, more time with your kids, connecting with your neighbors, or just slowing down. We CAN change the things that are not working, whether it’s the broken American system of healthcare, economic inequality, or an administration run by someone who seems to care more about himself than the people he has sworn to serve. We can change the positives and the negatives. But it will take enormous fortitude to stand up to the specter of broken normalcy that already is screaming for our attention and to people literally banging on statehouse doors demanding a return to the old normal while the virus is still rampant…not to mention a president who foments such rebellion. It will cost lives.
Sabbath is calling to us. The kingdom of God is calling to us. We have an alternative vision of life available to us — it’s a vision that includes environmental sabbath and true social justice. Let’s not let this crisis go to waste.
In some ways, we are not so unlike the Hebrew people who are wandering for 40 years in the wilderness (though for us, it’s only been about 40 days, though there are times it’s felt like 40 years!). They are in a dramatic “threshold time,” emerging from the wilderness into a new land, and the writers of Leviticus are structuring the ethical, moral, and religious precepts for a people moving not just into a new place, but into a new chapter of their civilization. They are making intentional decisions about what kind of world God would want them to create, and they answer in part with the idea of “a sabbath of complete rest for the land.” (v.4)
We, too, are in a “threshold time.” Walking through doorways of transition and transformation are never comfortable, but if we are to step across the threshold into newness and faithfulness, we can’t long for the good old days when we were enslaved in Egypt.
My friends, we are a people of resurrection, and we can help bring Christ’s presence into the world if we have the will to do so. We are moving into a new chapter in the history of our civilization, and we can — we must — be intentional about the kind of world we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in. At Plymouth, we talk about and pray for the kingdom of God, here and now and still unfolding. Now is our best chance to help put precepts into practice. With God’s help, we can make it so.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.