I’m sitting in my office — the 3rd floor of the main building. There was never a number or nameplate designated for this office space, which I inhabited only last fall. Dr. Bruster visited me one day and jokingly designated it “Platform 9 & 3/4” — a Harry Potter reference to a non-existent platform at the King’s Crossing station in London where students had to literally run into the brick wall in order to disappear and reappear at the magical Hogwarts Express on the other side. There’s something that rings true to that for me, maybe you too, with all its curious metaphorical implications!
But it’s fairly quiet on the 3rd floor, as you can imagine, though we are seeing church members and friends and staff coming through the building now in small, masked, socially-distanced doses! And that’s been really nice. Signs of hope!
Meanwhile, in this COVID-19 drenched, politically charged, racially tense, now fire-stormed time we’re in, I’m wistfully thinking of a time a few years ago, playing racquetball with a friend from seminary days at TCU. It’s a little incongruous, I admit. But sometimes we need to escape to our imagination.
“What is the greatest joy in life?” John asked me after soundly beating me during one of our annual games of racquetball. He’s always very competitive, though he’s not particularly athletic and might even be considered a little “out of shape.” I’m not particularly competitive, though I think I’m pretty healthy! We typically play only once a year during Minister’s Week at TCU. In the meantime, I try to play regularly enough to improve my game. He typically wins. On this occasion, perhaps just to rub his victory in my face, as we left the Y, he lit up a cigarette, took a long drag, and then asked the question as he proudly blew the smoke so the side.
I figured it was a trick question, so I joked, “A double cheeseburger with a plate of onion rings and a beer?”
We both laughed, and then he said, “Knowing you are not alone in this world. That our lives make a difference. That we are brushes and paint and colors on the canvas of each other’s lives.”
It was sometimes hard for me to remember that John is now a professor of religion and philosophy in New York while I’m dodging a hard rubber ball inside a 30 x 15 plaster box. His loosely quoting Thoreau in such a context easily puts a different spin on the whole experience.
But he’s always been true to these words — he spends much of his free time with his family and fellow New Yorkers putting up houses with Habitat for Humanity. And in the same way, he loves keeping up his connections with friends and family, and he revels in moments of connection with strangers on the streets of New York City.
He once told me, “You know, when we get together to raise a house for someone in the community, we don’t eliminate poverty. All we’re doing, really, is helping a neighbor. But the meal together, at the end of the day,” he’d smile, “is far more satisfying than that of a billionaire celebrating his most recent acquisition!”
There is certainly something about working as a community, about seeing community, which is as deeply meaningful as it is exciting. Thoreau spoke of the life we live together, painted on this wild canvas of creation, interconnected and affecting one another — whether we acknowledge it or not. It is the sacredness we live in — concrete and asphalt, buildings and barns, pastures and forests . . . Creation and Creator. We are not alone.
Somehow our identities and our very substance are caught up in one another, even as the Psalmist reminds us in Psalm 139, we cannot escape the presence of the Holy in our midst.
This time we are in is reminding us just how much we need one another, while at the same time suggesting maybe it’s not been enough of a reminder of our interdependence. The divisiveness is still there. The anger and angst seem pretty much as present as ever. Many of us are feeling somewhat broken in all of this, while others, just inconvenienced. But I think there is a deeper sense of something misaligned, out of sync in all of this. We may not see it so clearly in 2020. This year may simply be an invitation to take a longer look in 2021 and beyond.
But the reality of what brings us together is still true it seems, what we often experience as the greatest joy — knowing that we are not alone… that we are a part of something much deeper and connective and hopeful that comes to life in our gratitude, generosity, and openness to one another. What theologian Martin Buber called the sacred divine that is found in our seeing one another as part of God’s very being! Jesus called Jerusalem out on it as he approached Jerusalem in his final days and simply wept, saying, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! If only now you knew of the ways that make for peace.”
It can feel like running into a brick wall sometimes. I get that. But keep banging into that wall. The magic is that when the pain subsides a bit, and the smoke clears, compassionate connection (whether in-person or in-digital) still brings joy!
Join us this Sunday as I continue our new series, “Peace in the Broken- Living in the Questions” and interview Charme Robarts for some fun, insights, and facts about Charme and the places that break us open to connection! We’ll be gifted with the amazing talent and music of one of Austin’s most popular singer/songwriters, Erin Ivey!
Be well and see you soon!
Rev. Tom McDermott
Associate Pastor of eleven:eleven