Boots on the Ground, a Sermon by Rev. Dagmar Bollinger
August 18, 2020
I am Rev. Dagmar Bollinger from Ann Arbor, Michigan. You might remember me from visits to your lovely “brick-and-mortar church” in Glendale. Although not the same as physically being there, I am glad technology allows me to be with you virtually while saving gas and reducing air pollution at the same time.
You might also remember that I am a board-certified healthcare chaplain specializing in providing spiritual care to cancer patients. During the Coronavirus lock-down, St. Joseph Mercy Cancer Center closed and I was temporarily reassigned to acute care at the main hospital. The virus was quickly peaking and the hospital started resembling a war zone as infected patients streamed into the ER while the staff scrambled to get their hands on scarce personal protective equipment, also known as PPE. I was part of the essential Covid19 workforce that came to be known as“boots on the ground,” which is, of course, the name for the ground soldiers who are exposed to the highest danger in a war.
The work at the hospital was grueling—physically, mentally, and spiritually, but encouragement came every day from people who rallied outside the hospital to show their support for the overburdened staff. There were lots of prayers, endearing entertainment such as groups singingand dancing, there were fire engines circling the hospital, sounding the siren and fighter jets flying in formation overhead. It was extraordinary. Despite the personal hardship and danger—or maybe because of it—I had never felt more needed, more useful, nor more honored in my life.
Then, at the end of July came the announcement that due to enormous financial losses, hospital management had to reduce and restructure its workforce drastically. Hundreds of workers were furloughed or laid off. My oncology chaplain position was among the casualties. Although I had anticipated that this might happen, losing my job felt like someone was pulling the ground from underneath my chaplain boots.
I am still grieving the loss of a job that I loved dearly. But I am realizing that the ground is still there, and so are the boots. But now I think of the ground as ‘the ground of being’ which is a modern expression for God coined by the well-known German theologian Paul Tillich. The ‘boots on the ground’ are the means for doing, such as doing God’s work. Being, then, is the condition for doing. My esteemed professor Rev. Dr. George Dole might say: “they are distinguishably one” and the element making them one is love.
And this is how I relate the boots on the ground to the two great commandments Jesus gave us. As Christians and Swedenborgians, we believe that God is love. In 1 John 4:8-10 says: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” In Divine Love and Wisdom, §1, Swedenborg simply says: “Love is our Life.” And as beings created in God’s image, the acts of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself are again ‘distinguishably one.’The Buddhist master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh calls this state “interbeing,” which means to inter-dependently co-exist. In Divine Love and Wisdom, §47, Swedenborg expresses it poetically. He says: “Love consists in desiring to give what is one’s own to another. To feel the joy of another as joy in oneself—that is loving.”
I have to admit that there has always been a wrinkle in my readings and understanding of Swedenborg’s writings and that is the absence of the word ‘suffering,’ as in physical suffering that arises in the wake of illnesses, wars, earthquakes, floods—and yes, pandemics. Pete suggested that I look at what Swedenborg said about‘vastation.’ I did. Swedenborg describes vastation as a spiritual state of devastation. While spiritual devastation undoubtedly enters into the equation of physical suffering, I found it hard to relate it to my question: how can we feel joy in a world that is currently suffering great pain of every kind due to the Coronavirus?
I came to the conclusion that the difference lies in how we define joy vs. happiness. These two terms are used interchangeably and for most people, the distinction is probably simply a matter of semantics. Not so for me. I regard happiness as a feeling that is pleasant, but fleeting and momentary, like the weather. It tends to be externally triggered and dependent on other people, things, places, thoughts, and events. By contrast, joy is cultivated internally. It transcends the daily ups and downs and comes when we make peace with who we are, why we are and how we are.
My understanding, then, is that joy is a deep expression of our spirit. Let me give you an example from my own experience. I had been tenderly caring for a terminally ill cancer patient named Mary over an extended period of time. The last time I saw her, she was drifting in and out of consciousness. She loved Taizé chanting which is a form of meditative singing using verses from the Psalms. I sang her favorite ‘Bless the Lord my soul.’ At the end of the chant, all she was able to do is squeeze my hand in gratitude. It was a precious moment when a quiet joy filled both of us even as tears were rolling down our cheeks.Not only did I feel Mary’s joy as joy within myself, but through the act of sharing in Mary’s suffering, the literal meanings of compassion and loving kindness were fulfilled with the grace of the Divine.
In the war against the Coronavirus, we are all “boots on the ground,” because there is no safe haven except in the sanctuary of our heart and soul. In this extraordinary time, compassion and loving kindness emerge in form ofcountless unselfish acts by people from all around the world. And although it may be hard at first to feel the “joy” in fighting virus, we can all serve with acts of selfless love.Some displays of love are spectacular, such as a famous trio of beloved Italian opera singers belting out arias from balconies to rapt audiences in the streets below, making them forget the pain, if only for a moment. Others are quieter but equally joyous, such as people providing home-cooked meals for self-isolating neighbors who caught the virus. A ten-year old boy living on my street delighted the neighbors with organizing a dress-up dog parade viewable from the safety of our doorsteps. His message: Help walk your shut-in neighbor’s dog. Another story: A flower shop owner had to close her store. For weeks, she delivered flowers that had already been ordered from the nurseries to the doorsteps of seniors.
Ideas like these abound. Some hospitals and charities will distribute hand-written get-well cards to Covid-19 patients and notes of encouragement to their families. Donating blood is a huge need. So is donating homemade cloth face masks to hospitals, nursing homes and homelessshelters. Picking up necessities for neighbors without transportation is another need. Small acts of kindness are big to those who receive them. All that is required is love and the commitment to help.
Of course, there are questions. Some people ask why God is letting all this suffering happen. It reminds me of the question I once asked of George Dole when I was his student. It related to the subject of the Holocaust. “George,” I said, “why does God allow horrendous evil like this to happen?” There was a moment of silence and then George asked in his gentle manner: “Couldn’t God ask us the same question?” At that very moment, a gigantic chip fell of my shoulder and I finally assumed responsibility for the evil in myself—all of it: selfish thoughts leading to mindless, irresponsible, careless, and sometimes intentionally mean actions that hurt other people. I repented and made amends where I could. As a global society we are responsible for our actions at every level: individually, locally, state-wide, country-wide and globally. God doesn’t cause suffering, we do as a result of our selfishness, greed, and power struggles. When we suffer because of our evils, God suffers, too. But maybe this tiny and ferocious virus is God’s wake-up call to get us a step closer to the realization that we are and must act as one human family living on a fragile planet which is our home.
I want to conclude with some words from a woman who admitted in a tweet having gone through a low-grade depression during these past few months. She said: “The idea that what this country is going through shouldn’t have any effect on us – that we all should just feel OK all the time – that just doesn’t feel real to me. So I hope you all are allowing yourselves to feel whatever it is you’re feeling.”
This is my hope and prayer for you as well.
From The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller
There is a brokenness
out of which comes the unbroken,
out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow
beyond all grief which leads to joy
and a fragility
out of whose depths emerges strength.
There is a hollow space
too vast for words
through which we pass with each loss,
out of whose darkness we are sanctified into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound
whose serrated edges cut the heart
as we break open to the place inside
which is unbreakable and whole, while learning to sing.
God bless you and keep you. God make his light to shine upon you and give you peace!