Six Degrees of Connection: An Experiment in the Midst of a Pandemic

When in our Music God is Glorified

I was supposed to perform yesterday.  I was supposed to be part of the Lafayette Master Chorale “Cathedral Classics” concert.  Instead, I went for a walk in the sun and worked on a puzzle.  Those were lovely things to do, but they weren’t the same as singing in the concert…and they definitely weren’t the same as singing in this concert in particular.

When I was five, I started singing in the choir at the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul in Burlington, Vermont.  Every Tuesday afternoon I went to the choir room where I learned about music: breathing, key signatures, rhythm, and dynamics.  I also learned about the Episcopal liturgy.  Near the end of our rehearsals we usually marched into the chapel where we would sing evensong: “my soul doth magnify the Lord,” “now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…”, “we entreat thee to hear us good Lord.”  These are the phrases that stuck with me (and yes, a five-year-old using the word “entreat” seems a little out-of-sync with the culture).  Finally, I learned about the importance of the group.  We breathed together, we counted together, we prayed together, we played line tag outside the church after rehearsal together.  Choir was such an integral part of my childhood that it looms large over everything else. 

Choir was where I first became aware of connecting with God.

When I first felt called to ordination, I was reluctant to respond to that call.  Mostly that had to do with my own issues about being seen and feeling worthy.  But a not insignificant part of my reluctance was a knowledge that if I became a priest, I wouldn’t be able to be in the choir anymore.  The grief around not singing in the choir was tremendous.  The choir was the place I most deeply experienced God’s presence aside from the Eucharist.  Yes, I could still sing the harmony of the hymns, but it wouldn’t be the same as coming together as a group, breathing together, working together to help God’s presence be known in the liturgy.

And so, when my children were big enough and I had completed as much official schooling as I care to for now, I auditioned to sing in the Lafayette Master Chorale. I auditioned just in time to participate in the annual Lessons & Carols service/concert—another liturgical staple of my childhood.  I felt like I was truly at home.  My heart was full.

In early January of this year, the war drums were beating loudly in our country.  No amount of running could make a dent in the anxiety I felt about our administration’s actions in Iran.  I prayed all day.  I ran many, many miles.  I contacted my legislators.  I meditated more frequently.  I added an extra therapy session or two.  But the thing that truly calmed me?  Going to Chorale rehearsal.  We breathed together.  We focused on the music.  And I lost myself in Beati Quorum and Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem.  I was able to breathe and be in the present moment as I connected with God through song.  It was a balm for my soul.  Now that balm is not available to me, and I miss it dearly.  I miss being together in song. 

So yesterday I listened to recorded versions of these pieces.  I channeled my grief into the removal of the well-loved yet dilapidated swing set from our backyard.  I have faith that we will see saner days and that the Master Chorale will sing together again someday.  For now, I take comfort in hearing this music, even if I can’t fully embody it.  God is still present in the music, but my physical distance from the choir is a little bit like a mask, keeping me safe in some ways, yet leaving me longing for an unfiltered breath of fresh air and a chance to raise my unmuffled voice in chorus with those around me in praise of God.    

The Best Laid Plans…

I told Greg (my husband) last week that planning is one of my superpowers.  I have loved to plan for as long as I can remember.  Maybe it’s because I’m a youngest child and tended to have a fear of missing out (FOMO back before FOMO was a thing).  Maybe it’s because I’ve tended to have a slightly higher-than-the-average-person level of anxiety.  Maybe it’s because I love a good mystery, and something about juggling all the little details and pieces and coming up with the right (read: most efficient) plan feels like solving a mystery.  I suppose it’s really a combination of all three and perhaps some other things thrown in as well. 

As an example: in high school, a friend of mine and I would always attend the annual New Year’s Eve extravaganza in downtown Burlington, Vermont. There were a large variety of performers in numerous locations from noon until midnight (usually performing in one-hour increments).  I would make a list of all the performers we hoped to see and all times they were performing to create our schedule for the day.  In the end I had something that looks like those logic problems we had to solve in grade school: a grid with checkmarks and circles so we knew exactly where to be and when.  It was incredibly satisfying.

If you’re a follower of the enneagram, you will not be surprised to learn that I’m a six.  They call us the “loyalist,” and Ian Morgan Cron** writes, “Sixes are the most faithful and dependable people on the Enneagram…they keep a watchful eye over us.  They safeguard our values.  They’re the glue that holds the world together.”  Doesn’t that sound lovely?  He also writes, “sixes see a dangerous world in which disaster can strike at any moment.  Appearances are deceiving.  People have hidden agendas.  They keep their eyes peeled for possible threats and mentally rehearse what they will do when the worst happens.”  Yup.  If you’re a six like me and you marry someone like my husband who has a relatively low level of anxiety, then you get to take on the role of planner not just for yourself, but for the whole family.  In February as the COVID-19 virus began to take hold around the world I noticed that I was planning in my head.  I didn’t truly believe we would be where we are now, but I took comfort in planning just in case.

While there is plenty to be anxious about with COVID-19, I can say I have noticed two things that are improvements for me: first, the whole family is getting a little more sleep.  (Sleeping is my other superpower, so that wasn’t such a big deal for me, but the extra sleep helps the family unit); and second, I’m now truly living the recovery motto of “one day at a time.”  By this time in March I have typically scheduled the entire summer—figuring out which camps are when, making sure the kids get enough time at home before heading to another camp, reserving hotels and scheduling time back East to be sure I can see everyone.  But not this year.  All planning is on hold (well, camps were reserved back in January, and I’m praying my kids actually get to go).  There’s no way to know when we might be able to go back to being in groups.  There’s no way to know when, or even, whether, my dear friends will get to have their wedding as planned. 

There’s no way to know. 

The truth is, there’s never any way to know, for sure, that all my planning will come to fruition.  Most of the time, I get to live in the illusion that I have control over a lot more than I really do have control over.  This time in quarantine is a good practice for me to live in the moment.  It’s a good way to for me to take each day as it comes, whatever it may bring, and put my plans aside for now.

**All quotes taken from The Road Back to You, pp. 190-191

–Hilary Cooke

In the Midst of Life

In the midst of life we are in death…

In the midst of life we are in death, we say in the funeral liturgy.

I miss Rachel Held Evans.  A lot.  The first book I read when our family went on sabbatical in the spring of 2013 was A Year of Biblical Womanhood.  I immediately fell in love with her writing style and humor.  She clearly loved the Bible and had a deep love of God.  She wrestled with deep theological questions in a way that invited me to wonder with her and deepen my own faith.  When she fell ill and was hospitalized during Lent in 2019, I was shocked.  She wasn’t even 40, she had two small children.  Surely, she would recover, I told myself.  Surely, the doctors would find a way to restore her physical health.  Easter came and went, and somehow Rachel didn’t get better.  She didn’t, like the 12 year-old girl Jesus heals, suddenly arise from her hospital bed and eat some food.  And then, early in May, just as I was leaving Indianapolis to drive home, I got the news that she had died.  It was unfathomable to me.  I sat in my car and wept.  Then I put on the Duruflé Requiem and began to drive.  When the Requiem ended, I listened to one of Rachel’s audiobooks, read aloud by her, and cried some more.

In the midst of life we are in death.

Over the last few weeks as the COVID-19 virus reached pandemic proportions, I’ve found myself thinking more and more of Rachel.  The situation we’re in is as unfathomable to me as Rachel’s death.  But I’m sure that’s not the only reason I’ve been thinking of her.  One of the challenges of grief is the way its web spins out and connects to all the other grief you’ve ever experienced, gathering it in and, in essence, multiplying the feelings.  When Purdue first announced the move to on-line classes, my thoughts turned immediately to the seniors—would they be able to experience all the usual rituals and ceremonies that mark their achievements?  When I picked my child up from the elementary school on that last day, I saw another child standing looking lost and forlorn on the corner by our house.  When I asked her if she was okay, she said, “Yes.  I’m just so sad that school is closing.”  The grief our country, our world, is experiencing is not insignificant.  This is a time of deep loss.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve been heartened by the way people are coming together, connecting in spite of the distance.  And yet, this grief must be attended to.  In the midst of life we are in death.

In the midst of life we are in death.  Perhaps this is always true, and it is especially true now.  We are all in this now.  Perhaps more than ever before, we are all living in the midst of death.  Living in the valley of the shadow of death.

As Rachel Held Evans wrote in what would be her final blog post on Ash Wednesday 2019,

It strikes me today that the liturgy of Ash Wednesday teaches something that nearly everyone can agree on. Whether you are part of a church or not, whether you believe today or you doubt, whether you are a Christian or an atheist or an agnostic or a so-called “none” (whose faith experiences far transcend the limits of that label) you know this truth deep in your bones: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Death is a part of life.

My prayer for you this season is that you make time to celebrate that reality, and to grieve that reality, and that you will know you are not alone.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

(https://rachelheldevans.com/blog/lent-for-the-lamenting)

— Hilary Cooke

Prayers in a Time of Uncertainty

Time feels different to me right now.  It feels to me like time is both slowing down and at the same time moving ahead at a rapid pace.  I wake up and listen to the news and a few hours later everything has changed.  I text with a friend who’s been sick, and I think, “you’ve been ill for a really long time, shouldn’t this virus have passed by now?” and then realize it’s only been two days, so no, that would be unlikely.  This simultaneous speeding up and slowing down is disorienting.  I’m finding it difficult to remember what day it is.

I’m reminded of times I’ve been mired in grief, when I feel like I’m walking in a cloud of sorrow that distorts my vision and leaves me confused.  I can feel the anxiety in the air.  Thankfully, as an introvert, my primary treatment for my anxiety is running—something I can still do while practicing social distancing.  It helps a little, but still I worry.  I worry for the vulnerable: for my older friends and family, for my immunocompromised friends, for the unsheltered, those who are becoming unemployed, and for those who rely on food pantries and may go hungry.

Every time I wash my hands (which is a lot these days) I say a prayer.  I pray for our prayer list, I say the Lord’s Prayer, I pray for the vulnerable, I pray for those who have no one to pray for them.  I also offer prayers of thanksgiving: for the health care workers tirelessly serving our communities, for the scientists working to find treatments and vaccines, for the companies that are changing their production lines to make more ventilators, for the educators finding ways to keep our children connected and learning even in this unusual time, and for all those practicing social distancing even at great emotional cost.

And so, we continue.  I practice self-care by running, by limiting my news intake to once or twice a day instead of every hour, by reading books, and by volunteering at the food pantry.  I look for the news stories of people helping, of people connecting—maintaining relationships even in the midst of social distancing, and I see that God is at work in our world.  The church is present in the midst of disconnection.  The church is here. 

— Hilary Cooke

Welcome to Connection

This week I was in a conference call with a colleague in Minnesota. As we discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing we also lamented the lack of connection that this distancing requires. She said something like, “You know, we always talk about six degrees of separation, but that’s not really about separation, it’s about connection. I wonder if there’s a way we could create something called ‘six degrees of connection’?” In this time when we are called to avoid crowds for the safety of our community, how can we find ways to connect?

I invite you in this time of quarantine to take time to reflect. What are you pondering in the midst of isolation? How are you experiencing God in this time? What’s occupying your thoughts and prayers?

If you would like, I invite you to write those reflections and share them on this blog page. Let’s see how many connections we can nurture in this time of disconnection.

To share your thoughts, please email Hilary: hilary@goodshep.org.