Listen, then, to the parable of the shopping carts.
After a long while spent in her home largely distanced from the world, a woman set out with a vast shopping list. Both her mother and her son were moving, and she needed to stock their new apartments with the trimmings of everyday life.
Day after day, at store after store, she found parking spots blocked by precariously angled shopping carts — some wedged between cars, others tipped unsteadily on grassy medians, often just a few feet away from racks where they could safely wait to be collected.
At each stop, it became her practice to gather a couple of stray carts and steer them into the store, usually muttering about the lack of consideration for the store’s employees and the other shoppers shown by those who had left the carts behind.
A dichotomy emerged: those who rejected the simple courtesy of putting their shopping carts where they belonged and those who aspired to be helpful, returning their carts and sometimes those of others.
The stray shopping carts share a throughline with where we find ourselves now, near summer’s end, still fighting a pandemic that has raged for more than 18 months.
From COVID’s earliest days, kind and faithful people, some of whom pursue vocations in science, teaching, medicine and nonprofits, have found ways to innovate and extend their work so that we might have some sense of continuity and stability.
These are among the cart gatherers. They have persevered in their work, often at personal risk, to keep people safe and provide needed services.
Meanwhile, a substantial, vocal subset of our siblings in Christ are refusing a path to limit this catastrophe, further endangering us all in the process. If some have met expectations for putting carts away, swiping the handles with disinfectant and trying to make things easier for those who come next, others are careening around the parking lot, speeding through busy crosswalks and yelling at us for getting in their way.
In the beforetime, when the nearly 650,000 Americans and 4.4 million people worldwide who have since died of COVID still walked among us, I’d have thought we would collectively embrace simple measures of protection and the arrival of a highly effective vaccine for our own well-being and that of others.
The disappointment, sometimes in people we thought we knew, has felt overwhelming, and our anger and despair are equally profound. If God gave God’s only son, and that son gave his life out of love for us, how can people who claim the fold of Christianity refuse to wear a mask as an act of love for their neighbors? How can they uncritically accept polemic that threatens them, their loved ones and people they may never meet who are equally beloved children of God?
The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, in her book “The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline and New Hope for Beloved Community,” holds up two concepts that point to both the historical underpinnings of our brokenness and the opportunity that could lead us forward.
Spellers writes of what she calls “self-centrism” and identifies it as the root of original sin. She defines it like this:
At the heart of love is the ability to choose. If the love was forced or mandated, then it wouldn’t be love. Given the choice, human beings tend to turn from God’s way of self-giving love, and instead choose to construct worlds that revolve around self: our needs, our identities, our desires. This turning from God is sin.
At the same time, she believes that what people most deeply crave is beloved community:
There is something elemental and compelling about communities of people who help one another to grow into all that they were created to be. Where each person is as committed to the other’s flourishing and to the flourishing of the whole.
Moving from the former toward the latter requires deep historical, theological and personal reflection, but Spellers believes it is doable and, in this moment, critical.
As I have wrestled with what has shown itself as precisely an embrace of self over all, I am also mindful from my place of relative privilege that many among us may not be surprised. Marginalized people have long recognized that their well-being has never mattered overmuch to anyone else.
Living on the margins has always meant someone can play by the rules, do what is expected of them and try to help others through their actions but their safety and security are still not promised.
Their disappointment might be less because their expectations are as well.
No gauzy optimism can hide the heartache of this moment. As we see the contraction or cancellation of events planned for fall, the ongoing delay of “normal” church activities and sacraments, the continued, constant anxiety for our welfare and that of others, our hearts should ache. It shows we’re still in the game of caring about others.
The challenge, for the cart gatherers among us who believe in and aspire to beloved community, is recovering enough to engage even those who have resolutely rejected it.