That of Which We Can Have Control

by Rev. Craig Hirshberg, Minister Emerita

The Rev. Lynn Ungar wrote in her poem:

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
Surely, that has come clear.)
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love—
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

This week marks the beginning of Holy Week in the Christian Tradition, and the beginning of Passover. The last time I was with the congregation was exactly a year ago, on Palm Sunday. In that service, we told the stories of Passover and Easter week. I preached about Moses and Jesus as ancient progressives. The main message of that sermon was that we needed to hear these important traditional religious stories over and over again, because they were stories of hope. They were stories of triumph over incredible odds.

Fast forward a year, and the meaning of Passover has taken on a different light. The Passover dates back to when the Jews were enslaved in Egypt. The Pharaoh attempted to murder all male Hebrew infants. One of the Hebrew babies, though—Moses—was saved by Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him. 

When Moses grew up, he witnessed an Egyptian overseer mercilessly whipping a Hebrew slave. Moses killed that cruel overseer. Pharaoh, hearing what Moses had done, sought to kill him, so Moses was forced to flee Egypt.

Many years later, God summoned Moses back from his exile to free the Egyptian Jews from slavery. When the Pharaoh resisted Moses’s entreaties to free the slaves, God afflicted Egypt with the Ten Plagues, the last of which was by far the most devastating. The tenth plague would kill the first born in every Egyptian family. The day before that tenth plague began, Moses instructed the Israelites to sprinkle lambs’ blood on their doorposts. That way, the Angel of Death would know that an Israelite lived there and would pass over their house; hence the name Passover. Families were instructed to stay huddled in their homes until the plague was over.

Now, there is more to the story about the Pharoah freeing the slaves, and the Exodus, but this year, I am more focused on that tenth plague and those families sequestered in their homes waiting for the worst to pass. I can relate. We all can relate.

What was it like for them, for the ancients? Were they afraid? Were they bored? How did they occupy their time? How did they even know the plague was over? How did they stay connected? How did they do it way back then?

Thousands of years later,  here we are in the same boat. Here we sit, sequestered in our homes, although so many things are different in the modern world. We have news, social media, teleconferencing, modern medicine. I sprinkle Clorox on my door instead of lambs’ blood. So many things are different. However, I think the human condition is not so different.

We are confronted with something over which we have little control, the COVID-19 pandemic. A worldwide plague that is totally out of our control. We know it is coming, we can estimate when, the degree, the apex, the symptoms, the remedies… but we have little control. OR do we? We can’t always control what the universe sends to us, but we can control how we react to what it sends. And those ancient stories can help.

What did the Hebrews have back then that we could draw upon today? The first thing that comes to mind for me is faith. Faith means a lot of different things to different UUs. It could be a faith in God, or a higher power, faith in our UU Principles, a faith in human ingenuity and the human capacity to overcome challenges, faith in nature and its natural forces, or faith in the goodness of people and the power of collectivity.

For me, it comes down to a faith in tomorrow. I trust in the positive future of a changing world. This is the stake in the ground I hold onto as the changing dynamics of the world spin out of control around me.

Whatever it is we put our faith in, this becomes the grounding force upon which we can muster a sense of control, if not over the universe, at least over ourselves and our actions. Now is the time to be tethered to our faith.

Another way we can muster control is by controlling our minds. I don’t know about you, but after I listen to the morning COVID-19 updates and the press conferences, it takes me a couple of unproductive hours to get my bearings again. The mind just takes fantasy rides riddled with fears for family and friends, or anger about shortages, or strategies about everything from making uber-cool face masks, to what will I do if I really do run out of toilet paper. 

This is fear talking. Fear is a big one. There is a big difference between fear and danger. It is easy to fill our heads, in fear, of the thought of COVID-19, just anticipating the real danger of being infected, even though we are presently healthy and fine. Fear can infiltrate a healthy mind, and take up an inordinate amount of space if we let it. If we let it. And if—or maybe I should say when—our fears get to be too much, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of where we are in the very present moment. We are safe, we are healthy, if we just keep our minds focused on what is real rather than what is thought. Often, we can accommodate our present circumstances fairly well. We are fine in the present moment.

Anger is another thing we can control. Someone once said anger is the punishment you give yourself for others’ mistakes. And it is so true. Anger at things over which we have no control is wasted energy. It unnecessarily takes up emotional bandwidth that could be reserved for other more positive things.

Fear and anger are just thoughts. We can let them override our psyche, or we take control with a counter-defense of more positive alternatives, like gratitude for what we do have, like turning off the TV, or playing a board game with family, like meditating, or utilizing other mindful actions to shift the counterproductive thinking.

This brings me to my final point. 

One more thing we can control is our time. There are so many different demands on our time, even if we are sequestered. Some of you are not only still working, you are also doing homeschooling. There is barely enough time to breathe. Others are trying to figure out a daily schedule that works. Others are just plain bored. And some may be sick.

Regardless, there is a new opportunity here, to observe how we normally spend our time and if we want to continue in the same way in the future. When the world is so topsy-turvy, simple things become more precious. What we once thought was important seems to matter less. What we once had no time for now is what we hold onto.

I know the most rewarding part of my sequestered self has been reaching out to people, some whom I haven’t talked to in years. Somehow the busyness of our normal lives, before COVID-19, inhibited the time needed to really connect with people. Communication became reduced to a message or Facebook page. I have found that picking up that old electronic device called the telephone and actually calling people has enabled such a deepening of connections these days. Why? Well, now, suddenly, everyone is home, everyone has a little extra time to talk, and most importantly, everyone needs to feel connected. Our human connectedness is what makes us feel more secure in these insecure times. It was true for the ancients and it is true for us. This is a gift we can give each other, if we just take the time.

We are experiencing hard times, and we will get through them the best we can in the best ways we know how. You see, I have faith. I have faith in the human capacity to endure and rebuild. We are part of history. We are the modern stories of hope and triumph. We are part of a new journey leading us to parts known and unknown.            

So, I invite you to keep the faith, monitor your mind, and reach out even if you can’t touch. Remember that we are in this together.

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