Abiding in Exile - The Timely Discipline of Showing Up 12/17/2020

Abiding in Exile - The Timely Discipline of Showing Up 12/17/2020

December 17, 2020

December 17, 2020

5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.                                      --Jeremiah 29.5-7
Some months ago, as I went through an incredibly challenging period in my ministry, I found it a struggle to get up in the morning and dig in to whatever was ahead of me that day. I was weighed down with sadness and anger, and uncertainty was a constant companion. My customary energy and creativity were at a low ebb.

Unclear about how to shake all of that, I developed a mentality that helped me get through my days: I’d try simply to show up. That was all I could manage. I’d take a deep breath and get myself together somehow, and do the thing that needed done, as best I could. I began describing this daily effort as “the discipline of showing up.” It felt like an incredibly low bar. But most days I could clear it. 

By “showing up” I don’t mean sitting in some heavy fog. I mean showing up with the best self I could muster, finding sufficient heart to bring that day’s bit of work to life, and moving things forward regardless of whether it would make a difference to anyone. Showing up began to mean I would fill the spaces that were open to me to fill, gosh darn it, and then get up and try to do it again the next day.

Even though it was painful. Even though things weren’t the way I wanted them to be.

Last weekend I watched the indomitable Kate McKinnon show up on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, to do her well-loved comedy work. And I watched when—for the second time this fall—she broke character during a “Weekend Update” skit, in which she was playing medical expert Dr. Wenowdis. (Say that name out loud; it’s a play on “we know this.”) I heard her utter the uncertainty that many of us are feeling right now, on the cusp of a vaccine that feels like a boon and also a conundrum:

“It's just like the light at the end of the tunnel has showed us how stinky and bad the tunnel is. It's like, how will the vaccine get to everybody? We don't know dis. Will we have enough? We don't know dis. Will life ever really go back to normal? Dis, we do not know dis. What we do know for certain…— no, we don't know nothing.”

McKinnon pulled herself together and ended the skit in character, and did her part to evoke more laughs later in the show. That glimpse, though, of feelings so real right now? It reminded me that McKinnon—and many of us—are barely managing to keep showing up right now. For good reason.

  • The COVID numbers right now are incomprehensible, too big for our human minds to grasp, really.
  • Even after we get vaccinated, in a month or two or six, we’ll still need to wear a mask for a while. So strange.
  • In the meantime, Christmas. A Christmas without most of the things that make it feel like Christmas.
I never thought I’d be saying this, about Christmas, of all things (!), but maybe in this season we need that discipline of showing up. That spirit of pulling ourselves together as best we can, doing what we can see to do, with as much heart as we can muster, even though it’s painful, even though things aren’t what we would have chosen.
It’s what the exiles must have done. It couldn’t have been easy to show up for the house-building and garden-planting to which Jeremiah directs them. They must have gritted their teeth, narrowed their eyes, and held back heavy sighs as they hacked at the unyielding ground—or, worse, found that foreign ground to be soft and fertile!—all the while yearning for things to be different.
How much it must have cost them to do the things that would keep their families safe, or that would make things easier for people around them. “Seeking the welfare” of that place, indeed.
Along the way, they must have wrestled with how to mark festivals they would now celebrate away from their homeland, without the Temple, having lost people and the fullness of traditions developed across lifetimes, and through generations.
Over this holiday season I know I’ll find myself “breaking character” at moments, losing my customary composure as pastor and mom and household partner to give in to the overwhelm and sadness of what can’t happen. But I want to show up the best I can, anyway. To believe that it matters when I do the thing that’s before me even if it can’t be the way I would have chosen. I still want to bring the best heart I can muster, grounded in why it mattered in the first place.
In that season that was so challenging for me, awhile back, that discipline of showing up not only got me through; it felt faithful, and ultimately fruitful. I found myself surprised sometimes by moments of real joy, and forgotten energy. I felt like God went out of God’s way to help me know, through a word here or a reaction there, that what I was doing was not in vain, that it wouldn’t be like this forever, that I was not alone.
And here I am, still standing. Thanks be to God.
The surprise of the hard and horrible exile is that in their ongoing and repeated showing up, they didn’t just survive. They dug deep into the stories and teachings handed down to them, some of which had been nearly lost over time. They told and re-membered—and to some extent re-weaved—histories and songs whose significance had grown distant. Unneeded, in some ways, until this moment. And then handed on for future generations who would, inevitably, find themselves having to dig deep at times, all over again.

It strikes me that many Biblical figures found themselves having to show up when they were uncertain, confused, and doubtful. In this season, we might think of Mary and Joseph who practiced that discipline all the way to Bethlehem, and beyond. And got to watch the unfolding of God’s plan, beautifully depicted in this video by The SALT Project (and shared with permission).

A Blessing:
In the coming weeks, with whatever is before you:
            Christmas “traditions”
            Leading or joining in worship, even at a distance
            However this pandemic affects you
            Grieving the many losses of this year
            Working for justice in our communities, our church, our world
may you show up as best you can
            believing that you are enough
            knowing that God is with you
            drawing on strength you don’t know you have.
May your own capacities surprise and hearten you,
may you find peace in whatever happens,
and may you glimpse joy.