The cicadas are coming! That was the headline in many papers a few weeks ago across the country. Big news. The 17-year cycle of the peculiar creatures that emerge from the ground, shed their outer shells and buzz around our patios is upon us. The reason they are news isn’t just that they come every 17 years; it’s that they symbolize the dependability of nature that hasn’t been disrupted by COVID-19 or climate change the way human life has been.

Signs of life abound this spring in Texas after more than a year of pandemic hibernation and then a snow apocalypse that added insult to injury. Many plants, bushes and trees have perished, but green shoots are emerging. A bird has nested with three newborns on the eave of my back porch.

For people like me — religious professionals who are weary of preaching to a camera in an empty sanctuary— signs in nature are matched by plans to regather inside our buildings, even if we remain masked for a time. The Centers for Disease Control lifted restrictions on in-person gatherings for worship, weddings, funerals and the like about a month ago. Most of our houses of worship are beginning re-entry now.

We are hopeful for the time to come when our tentative fist or elbow bumps turn into handshakes and hugs, when we can drop our judgments about the judgments of our neighbors regarding vaccinations and masks and social distancing, and instead see one another without trying to determine if they are good or bad because of whom they voted for or what news channel they frequent.

Can we get there? Honestly, we have to. The last book the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote was titled Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? That about summarizes it. We have a choice. We can choose to welcome the green shoots of vitality that emerge any time people look beyond differences to the soul of another, or we can allow the differences to define and divide us.

How will it be for you when you go back to church or synagogue or mosque in the weeks ahead? Will you see your fellow worshippers as siblings of spirit, united in their common humanity and drawn together by a common faith, or will you carry the legacy of suspicion and fear from these politicized times into your spiritual communities?

Religion is meant to unify, to bind people together around common beliefs and practices. Yes, one religion is delineated from another on the same basis. One denomination from another. But the force of identity that gives us a sense of belonging is not meant to overwhelm the force of neighborliness that is necessary for our common survival.

Let’s let nature lead us for once. When we see signs of new life, the renewal of the earth and the promise of fecundity, let’s look upon one another in the same way, ever hopeful of what may yet be ahead for one and all.