I have a wonderful office here in the Lansing, Michigan area, and I have used it much less frequently over this past year plus. It is a very nice office, but without much of a view. Out the east window, I see a business building. I hope the business is doing well, but the building is no architectural beauty. Looking out my north window, I see a wooded area: mostly scrub trees, nothing breathtaking. There is a bird feeder out there, and an occasional cardinal brightens my day. I’ve worked much more from home since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but one day, while at the office early in the pandemic, I found a raccoon hanging from the bird feeder scrounging for bird seed. At least he was masked and socially distanced.
Working from a home office, I have the opportunity to see more activity out the window. While attending the most recent Council of Bishops meeting by ZOOM, a wild turkey wandered near my window. One windy afternoon, I was quite taken by the tenacity and audacity of a squirrel up in a tree across the street. A squirrel in a tree—what’s the big deal about that? What captured my attention was that this squirrel was gathering food from some of the thinnest branches of the tree in winds that were whipping those branches from side to side. I marveled at the ability of this rather plump squirrel to hang on and keep at the task at hand. I wondered how he could cling to those thin branches in the sturdy breeze. I admit to not knowing enough about the skill set of squirrels to describe the exact mechanisms involved, nor do I know enough about the inner life of squirrels to describe how they feel or what they think in such precarious moments. Is “precarious” even a word to squirrels?
I was also taken by the image because it spoke to how I’ve felt sometimes over the past 15 months—hanging on to the thinnest of branches in a howling wind. We’ve been blown about by pandemic, by the need to do the challenging work of racial reckoning spurred on by scenes where black men and women have been killed by law enforcement, by the deaths of law enforcement officers working during a capital riot or responding to a mass shooting, by mass shootings themselves, by economic dislocations, by potential denominational schism, by the ongoing decline in religious affiliation. All these winds blowing us about are in addition to the usual events that tug and tear at us—deaths of loved ones, ordinary sadness and disappointment, missed opportunities. Perhaps you, too, can relate to that image of the squirrel hanging on to the thin branches as those branches are blown to and fro.
How do we hang on? By faith, by which I mean trust, which is the deepest meaning of the word faith. In the first chapter of Colossians, Paul writes of Jesus the Christ: “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (v. 17). All things hold together in Christ. We read, in some of the following verses, as rendered by Eugene Peterson in “The Message”: “So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fitted together in vibrant harmonies.”
We trust that. We trust that the God we know in Jesus Christ is at work to fix and fit together in vibrant harmonies all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe. In writing about faith as trust, the theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes: “At the heart of the desperate suffering there is in the world, suffering we can do nothing to resolve or remove for good, there is an indestructible energy making for love. If we have grasped what Jesus is about, we can trust that this is what lies at the foundation of everything” (“Tokens of Trust,” page 10).
We trust that in Christ, all things will hold together. That doesn’t mean everything will work out just as we may want it to. That doesn’t mean we avoid hurt and disappointment. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to engage in painful personal work to change things in our lives, our churches, our world so that they might more adequately reflect the love of Christ. We trust that in Christ everything of God finds its proper place, and the brokenness and dislocation is fixed and fitted into vibrant harmonies. We trust that at the heart of the desperate suffering in the world there is an indestructible energy of love. This is the faith by which we hang on in the howling winds of life.
By faith we can make our way through this pandemic, trusting that our efforts to mitigate the virus, to get vaccinated, will allow us space to learn and grow as church. By faith we can make our way through this time of separation, of uncertainty, of anxiety. By faith, we move forward to live more lovingly, including engaging in difficult work to change an unloving world. We may not be able to resolve or remove forever the suffering of the world, but we can make some difference, and we are called in Christ to make the difference we can.
This faith by which we keep hanging on is rooted in baptism, that simple act of sprinkling, dipping, or dunking in water, where we proclaim the love of God as plentiful as the waters of the Great Lakes, where we pledge to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness; to repent; to use the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression; to confess Jesus Christ as Savior and promise to serve him as Lord in union with the church—open to everyone. We pledge to be for one another a community of love and forgiveness, and to do all in our power to increase our faith, confirm our hope, and perfect our love, all by the grace of God. I trust that the church can be this kind of place, that it can be a community of love and forgiveness, where we help each other increase our faith, confirm our hope, and grow more perfect in love.
I once heard the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney say: “Keeping going in art and in life is what it’s all about. Getting started, keeping going, and getting started again.” When I am that squirrel hanging from the thinnest branches of the tree, winds blowing fiercely, it is faith that helps me hang on and faith that keeps me going—trust that in Jesus the Christ, all things hold together and that at the heart of the desperate suffering in the world there is an indestructible energy of love.
Keeping going on this joyful journey.
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church