“Prepare to Burn the Ships” by Teresa Ramsey

May 31, 2020


Greetings fellow Seekers and Guests.  This is the first time in over 6 months that I have been the one to share the Word.  Looking at my Zoom screen and feeling the attack of nerves, I remember why. I pray that I have listened well to the stirrings of the Holy One in my heart that I have something of value to share with you today.

Today is Pentecost Sunday and a high holy day.  It is the Sunday that we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and other followers of Jesus as described In Acts 2:1-21 The Holy Spirit is the means by which God makes their power available to us. The power not only brings life and healing to us, but it spreads to others through us.  In today’s gospel reading from John 7:37-39, Jesus promises that those who believed in Him would receive the Spirit, saying “Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” We must ask whether we are drinking from the living water that Jesus gives us, and if so, is it then flowing out of us to others? As always, the main question of the day is where is God in this?

On this Sunday, I want to share with you my own pandemic journey and suggest to you an approach to the future. Let me first share my virus story as it illustrates both how I was affected and how I was NOT affected. Like most people, we (Will and I) were unaware of the coming pandemic in early March. We were in Vermont, skiing with a group when we heard about the new virus and its contagiousness.  How it would affect our future was unclear but worrisome.  We heard that people were stock piling toilet paper and preparing as if for a snowstorm.  When we left Vermont to drive home to Takoma Park a few days later, our only real reaction was to stop at Home Depot to pick up paper towels and industrial bleach.  There was no toilet paper.  Once we arrived home, it began to sink in that something was seriously wrong.  As we learned more about the virus, we began to worry.  The virus seemed to be particularly deadly to older people.  There was little knowledge of its course of treatment and we heard that there may not be enough hospital beds or ventilators for the sick.  Worrisome.

Next, we heard, everything was going to be shut down for a while to “flatten the curve.” Our children encouraged us to shelter in place.  They, not we, would take our cat to the vet, purchase our food etc. We settled in to staying at home, early on going for a walk through the park with our daughter and the grandkids. Then waiting for it to end. It did not end. Instead there were orders to shut things down. This would be for a few weeks, right? Maybe over by Easter. It was not over.

It began to sink in: No movie theaters, no going to AA meetings, no going to church, no going shopping, no Bay-to Bridge bike ride, no trip to Costa Rica in May, no dentists, no haircuts, no nails done, no grandkid visits, no birthday parties, no Easter together…… Clearly, we had left the shore of our old way of life.  We grieved. We worried

Spring arrived, nevertheless.  Nature was not bound by Man’s laws. We found new ways of living and began to evaluate what was unimportant (new clothes, haircuts, buying stuff, going out to eat…).  We began to scramble to re-create what we had to have.  After the necessities of food and shelter, we needed connection.  The community around us grasped for new ways of connecting using cyberspace.  Hundreds of AA Zoom meetings sprouted up and we met there.  Seekers moved to on-line.  Museums, libraries, entertainment etc. went virtual.  Families began meeting virtually.  We became more technically savvy, as we had to.  I learned to buy food and yard supplies for delivery. Doctors saw patients by internet. Necessary stuff could be ordered. Cyber connection became critical. People began working from home if possible.  Kids went to school on-line.  A new, temporary way of living began.  Living on shipboard so to speak. I was nervous but otherwise okay.  And then I began to realize just how utterly fortunate I was.  Retired, I was not out of work like so many.  I would not lose health care. I could afford what I needed.  I had a great place to shelter, a garden to work in, friends and family were fine.

Then the images of the reality of others began surfacing.  Elderly, shut away from families as they died, nurses and Doctors, exhausted, without equipment.  Large numbers of people sick and/or dying, people out of work, people unable to pay rent, a world shut down, people trapped, people hungry, people scared. How could I not feel their pain?

This time of the Covid pandemic has been called the “big pause.” As with most pauses, we have had the opportunity to reflect.  In addition to the pause, we have had some unique opportunities to look “behind the curtains” and observe things that we do not often get to see clearly.  I believe that no experience is accidental. As I paused, I watched for the lessons in the experience.  I am sure that you did too.  What I saw was a revelation of just how much I had taken certain privileges for granted, just how much I had signed off on an unjust status quo that benefited me, how much I had let self-interest rather than God interest guide my decisions. I was not alone in this.

In looking at our country, it became clear that so many of our systems are unjust. The poor had no access to medical care, were marginalized, forced to work if possible, even when unsafe, often used for the comfort of those with money to perform odious tasks.  All kinds of people were out of work, entire industries shutdown, people unable to pay rent, worried about food.  I learned and am still learning just how bad things are right under our noses. For example, I learned that 40% of native Americans have no running water! Our medical systems are inadequate.  Our leaders not equipped to lead with few exceptions.

The damage we humans have caused the earth became even more apparent as animals began emerging to reclaim areas we had driven them from.  The air grew cleaner and breathing and vision improved with the cessation of cars and manufacturing. The harm caused by our consumption became clearer.

I noticed that my material things lost importance as there was no one to see what I had. What use, for example, were new clothes? I noticed some things that seemed okay had hidden problems that the pandemic illustrated: Housing the elderly together, investing in an AIRBNB and other things. I noticed that travel to escape this disease was useless, it was everywhere or soon would be. Jails became even more risky and awareness of the huge number of inmates in this country grew.

While things were challenging here at home, they were even worse for the poor around the world.  Lack of food, disease, lack of health care, no work, it kept piling on.

It was not all negative though. If you were looking for the Holy Spirit in this, they were present. With so many out of work, those who had access to money, began sharing more.  People began to rethink their careers. People brought their gifts to the community to share them be they poets or painters or dancers. Connecting with each other assumed a greater and greater importance. Neighbors looked out for each other and the elderly. We began walking and biking for pleasure again. We renewed our interest in nature.  We dreamed about when we could resume certain simple pleasures that we had previously taken for granted: sharing a communal meal, swimming in a pool, camping, and travel.

I am learning a lot about myself and others during this time.  It is a time, as Kolya pointed out a few weeks back, that we are in a liminal space, the space between two worlds. In a meditation that she shared, authored by Richard Rohr, Rohr says that “Liminal space is where we are most teachable, often because we are most humbled.” Now is the time to learn our lessons. We need to learn them now and learn them well.  The Holy Spirit of Pentecost is here with us.  We need to turn to the Holy Spirit for direction, now and in the future.

We have all witnessed things exposed that need to be changed and the time is approaching when we must address this. You can be sure that we will soon be receiving from the material world, advice about how to proceed after the pandemic.  It is easy to imagine what we will hear. In a widely shared essay by Vincent Gambuto, entitled Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting, he describes what he sees is the messaging we will soon receive.  He tells us (I paraphrase) to prepare because “very soon, enormously powerful forces will try to convince us all to get back to normal. We will certainly be wooed by advertisers to buy a variety of items that will restore us to feeling good and comforted again. We will be told that we did not really see what we saw or that it really was not so bad.  Gaslighting pure and simple. Oh, and buy stuff! Buy lots of stuff, you will feel better! I want to suggest to you a different response.

The main thrust of my message is Prepare to Burn the Ships. Let me explain what this entails and how it is connected to Pentecost Sunday and the time following the pandemic.

The poet Herman Melville in his poem The Enthusiast uses this metaphor to urge that burning one’s own ship, as Julius Caesar is reported to have done, is better than conforming to the lying material world and its values. Caesar burned his ships so that his foes could not use them, nevertheless Melville saw a moral lesson in turning away. There is no turning back if the ships are burned. Corrupting influences were therefore removed.

Another example of this metaphor is found in the drama “Cortez and the Conquest of Mexico”, by James Robinson Planche, who describes how the conquistador Cortes commanded his crew to burn the ships which had made their voyage to Mexico from Cuba possible.  By burning the ships, retreat was rendered impossible and the crew forced to take a stand where they were. Cortez thus succeed in conquering the Aztecs where others had been unsuccessful for six centuries. His men had no choice to flee when the ships were gone.  They had to succeed or die.

These past months we along with the whole world have been on a journey from our familiar places to an uncertain future.  At some unknown time in the future, we will find ourselves on a new shore.  Before that happens, we need to reflect and, I suggest, prepare to burn the ships upon arrival.  Returning to the comfort and safety of the ship is tempting but we simply cannot return to the old normal after what we have witnessed. The old normal presumed Americans are invincible, that things matter more than people, that profit and the economy are more important than human life, that some lives are expendable, that we can lock or fence our problems out, that clean air is a commodity, and that our lives should be so busy that we don’t pay attention to what is going on all around us.  We should resist this urge to seek to return to nostalgic picture of our past, even if such is possible.  Rather, we should burn the ships instead, ensuring that we cannot go back to the way it was. The truth is out now about who we are spiritually, as a people.  Some of it is good news, some not so good.  All of what we have witnessed deserves evaluation and consideration with the help of the Holy Spirit.  We must re-think who we want to be, how we want to spend our money, how we want to spend our time, how we want to connect to each other, how we should care for the earth, and how we should care for each other. We must address the inequities and the injustice. It is time to realign our wills to the will of the Holy One. Jesus promised that a special blessing awaited all those “who have not seen and yet believed.” John 20:29 We are also told that whoever believes in Jesus, “living water will flow from within him.”  The world is in a bad place right now.  It needs living water. The people of the world need our help. We need to let the living water flow from us into the world.

The prognosis for the future is grim. Poverty and unemployment will be widespread here and elsewhere.  An unprecedented level of famine and shortage looms. The environment has been abused almost beyond repair.  It is time for those of us who follow Jesus to rededicate ourselves.  We have each received fruits of the spirit to aid in this task. May the Holy Spirit guide our efforts and help us to discern the call. Our next action should be to move forward with a revived purpose, forward, not back. We should not even consider going back. Let us burn the ships!  Let it be so. Amen



"Trinity Sunday" by Marjory Bankson
"Being Persons of Prayer in a Pandemic" by Joan Dodge