Reviewed by Ben East (Malawi 1996-98)
Sarah S. Scherschligt is the Pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Virginia. Originally from Minnesota, she lives near Washington, D.C. with her husband and two daughters. She studied at Valparaiso University, Yale Divinity School, and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. Prior to becoming a pastor, she served in the U.S. Peace Corps (Malawi 1996-98) and worked for Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education & had experience in both Minnesota and Namibia. She is an environmental activist and amateur potter. Her writing has appeared in The Christian Century, The Presbyterian Outlook, BoldCafe, and The Washington Post.
God Holds You offers a chronicle of hope. As we entered the pandemic wilderness in March 2020, progressive Lutheran pastor Sarah Scherschligt began publishing daily reflections about adapting to the new constraints. Directed toward her congregation, this collection of real-time posts transcend the self and her faith community to form a relatable narrative that is both human and spiritual.
In clear, direct language her pandemic account looks at the fears and frustrations we all felt from the beginning, and banishes the darkness with the small joys and intermittent levity that got us through.
“It’s like everyone knew it might be sad to turn five in the middle of a pandemic, so they did what they could do to make it great.” What did they do? Neighbors lined the sidewalk and cheered for an impromptu birthday parade. What joy and hope in the throes (Day 60) of isolation!
Though pegged to the extremes brought about by the pandemic, the insights offer hope in every-day things. In it rises anger at negligent leadership and political recklessness, confusion about how to keep our loved ones safe, the dispiriting endlessness — another new date we should expect lockdown to end … But we also read of joy: “Today I presided over a wedding.” Elation: “The internet is going to be a festival of soaring angel song, extraordinary preaching, and candles lit at exactly the right moment to evoke a peace that would lull a babe to sleep.” And, ultimately, reliance on community and family.
Sarah reflects on her experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a Malawian village to explore the meaning of grief. In Malawi, the community would wail and ululate in mourning death.
You could hear the grief-stricken sound from far away. Mourners would gather to join the cry. For some, it had little to do with a natural expression of grief. It was more performative, like joining a song in progress. Sometimes, to my ears, it seemed artificial, manufactured.
But there was great wisdom in it. Taking on an outward, physical manifestation of grief helped people move through it. It helped cue their emotions to be released. It was a catharsis.
God Holds You reminds us that Grief can be about more than death. We can grieve the small things, like the inability to plan. But what happens to our grief when grief is all around us? Is it self-indulgent? It is not, and we have license to accept it.
I preached today about the importance of grief. I was preaching to myself because I don’t want to grieve. I’d much rather be chipper and cheerful. “I have no choice. I am sad. I’m going to carve out time in my schedule to grieve. I will be still. Alone. Maybe go for a walk. Maybe take a nap. I worry that if I don’t, I will get blindsided by grief in the guise of anger or resentment or burn out.
Covid may recede, but the remedies explored in God Holds You promise lasting hope. It is above all things honest about doubts and insecurities, and therefore courageous and heartening. Faced with chaos and difficulty, the question is not “What is the right thing to do?” but rather “What is mine to do?”
In these pages is a reminder to be gentle on yourself.
Ben East (Malawi 1996-98) is a U.S. Foreign Service Officer and novelist. Originally from Connecticut, diplomatic assignments have taken Ben to India, Washington, Mexico, Ghana, Nicaragua, and Saudi Arabia. His novels include Two Pumps for the Body Man and Patchworks. www.beneastbooks.com