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First thing every morning, before I even open my eyes, I listen for what I don’t hear: school bus brakes, construction’s rattle. Neighbors’ cars pulling out of driveways and the distant wind of traffic on I-40.
These days it’s only birds out there, and a breeze in new-leafed trees. Occasionally the low tear of an airplane.
In another context this might feel creepy: the world is empty and we’re the only people left. It might be a scene of apocalypse and this is the calm before the next disaster, before zombies come crawling out of the woods.
But the opposite is true, and I remember this every morning: everyone is at home because we’ve all been enlisted, waging battle against an invisible enemy via retreat. No one pulls out of their driveway because most of us aren’t really allowed to. Businesses and schools are closed. Everything that can close has shut its doors for now.
In the mornings these days, I listen to the birds.
It might be helpful to catalog how and when the world went sideways, but I recall the changes–all so recent–as impressions. I think it was four weeks ago that I was shopping for fruit. The stranger opposite me was wearing a mask. She smiled at me as she picked over the grapes, her eyes’ corners crinkling, and she pulled some grapes from one bag and added them to another. It wasn’t until after I got home that eyed my own grapes with suspicion. Had she touched them? And is there a way to clean a coronavirus from grapes?
The changes were incremental at our gym. We always wipe down our equipment after use with disinfecting wipes. Then we began washing our hands before and after workouts. Class sizes were restricted; everyone had to remain at a six-foot distance. And then the gym closed, with our owner loaning out equipment for the duration. I’m pretty sure that happened three weeks ago, but it feels like it was in January.
I don’t remember when we started social distancing, but that, too, has been going on for months, I’m sure of it. Based on the calendar, Sunday will be the fifth worship service we’ve participated in from home, but it feels more like the tenth. I think of my Sunday school students, of their Jonah projects gone dormant. They’ll likely have the rest of their school year at home. Academic demands will fade into summer instead of blazing out in the heady tumult of last days.
It doesn’t really matter how long it’s been, and no one can tell us how long it will last. And that is part of what makes it so strange: we live by clocks and calendars, and these, in a sense, have been erased.
I’m not the first person to remark that the time recalls the days after 9/11: we’re galvanized by a common enemy, one that–for all the warning–has taken us by surprise. The world as we know it has stopped for awhile even as, in many ways, things look so much the same. We wait for and believe in a return to normal while also courting the very real question that normal may not be possible, or that we’ll have to find a new one.
I remember mornings immediately following 9/11, waking up and listening for airplanes.
I say that things look so much the same, that we’re fighting a common enemy, but it doesn’t play out that way. We’re staying home while others brave it out on the front lines: doctors and nurses, technicians and researchers. For now, our friends who work in local hospitals tell us that things remain quiet. They have cleared rooms and schedules of elective procedures and stand ready for an influx of COVID patients, the “surge,” they call it.
Still, I’m not sure that even these brave ones are on the front lines. The front lines might belong to the people who have the virus, who are quarantined in their homes or in hospital rooms. Recently I read a prayer request for a thirty-year-old woman suffering from double pneumonia and COVID-19. She’s on a ventilator somewhere in New York City, and I most certainly am praying for her.
I can pray and I can shelter in place. I can wash my hands and avoid touching my face. But all things aren’t equal. My battle against this virus feels like meager effort compared with what she’s going through, just trying to breathe.
All things aren’t equal.
Three weeks ago, a friend sent me something intended, I’m sure, to be comforting. Lovely in its way, it imagines our sheltering-in-place as a means of grace from Jesus. In fact, the words were put in Jesus’ mouth, like so:
Jesus: I will bring together neighbors, restore the family unit. I will bring dinner back to the kitchen table. I will help people slow down their lives and appreciate what really matters. I will teach my children to rely on me and not on the world. I will teach my children to trust me and not their money and material resources.
As I said, lovely in its way, but I wasn’t taken by its loveliness. In all honesty, this little bit of intended hope actually made me angry.
I pushed back in a return text to my friend. This seems to be all-well-and-good for families, I said. And bringing dinner back to the kitchen table is perfectly fine–unless you own a restaurant, in which case you count on people eating out. But what about people who live alone, I said. What about people who don’t have a family nearby, or who don’t have a family at all? People who count on evenings out or in the homes of friends?
The words-as-attributed-to-Jesus in this rose-colored quarantine fell, to my ear, alarmingly short. That’s what I said to my friend, and she saw my point.
But there was more to my reaction than that. In the days after the schools closed, my thoughts turned to the children who don’t have enough food at home or who have an abusive parent. I thought of the teenagers for whom high school is a refuge, who find solace in the friendship of their peers or in the counsel of a kind teacher.
“Home” is a lovely ideal. Home should be a sanctuary–but it isn’t a sanctuary for everyone. All things aren’t equal.
But that wasn’t the real reason I was angry.
The truth is that a shelter-in-place order isn’t terribly troubling for me. I’m a writer, living to a large extent in my head. I definitely miss seeing friends, going to church and the gym and out to eat. But I have plenty of work to do, and I can do it at home.
Add to that the comfort of family–which I also have. We get along great. We have plenty of room. We also have plenty of food and (for now) toilet paper.
And then there’s our yard and the oncoming spring, and the system of trails that runs through our neighborhood. Although I haven’t been in a car in days, I have been outside a lot: weeding in the yard and walking or running with family and some friends-at-a-six-foot-distance.
Then I think of people living in Queens, their high-rises pressed up against the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The apartments are tiny; the hallways compact. And outside–when they go there–everything is concrete and macadam.
Accustomed to the noise of traffic and car horns, they must find the quiet streets eerie. What do they hear when they wake up? Maybe ambulance sirens.
I was definitely angry about this: I will teach my children to trust me and not their money and material resources.
Why in the world should that make me angry? I wrote a book about that, for crying out loud. My husband lost his job in 2001 and then again in 2009; we lived several years below the poverty line. We came crushingly close to filing for bankruptcy more than once.
If anyone has learned not to trust in her money and material resources, it’s me. Right?
But I am my own reminder when I use the word “learn.” It’s a thing we do all the time with God, a thing I and others say. It’s something I finally saw in a new light and then wrote straight into a book: When the suffering continues, when the wait goes on, we all just want to cry “Uncle!” We want–however we can–to find a way to make it stop.
And how does that work with God? How do we make him act? We’ve long ago given up appeasement, offering sacrifices to stem the gods’ angry tide.
Instead we believe in a larger benevolence: that God is allowing the suffering to teach us. And this translates into our begging God to show us his lecture notes: “Just teach me whatever you want me to learn,” we say, “so that this waiting and suffering can be over.”
Here, as with the ancients, God is transactional. If we can just get the payment right; if we can simply learn our lesson; if we can get our pawn into the right square, we can have our lives the way we want them.
Instead of seeking God in our suffering, we (understandably) seek a way out. But if God is real, then he is larger than lessons. The Lord of heaven and earth wouldn’t be about getting us to the right square on the board or the right level in our development. He might rather be contending with us and our deeply meaningful lives.
Note the repeated phrase in the Bible: “Wait on the Lord.” Not “wait on the job,” or “wait on the baby. ” Not “wait on the vaccine” or “wait on the economy,” but wait on him. As if the waiting is opportunity to shift our perspective, to pull our gaze from something distracting and rest it, instead, on him.
As if he wants to get close to us in our suffering.
But we prefer the distraction and seeming self-sufficiency. We prefer the (specious) safety of the everyday.
And so we bargain: Teach me the lesson, we say, so I can get this suffering over with.
But God is not a curriculum, and my life is not a workbook.
Like many sheltering-in-place right now, not sick with the coronavirus but battling via retreat at home, Bill and I are looking at economic trouble. The specter of loss is raising its familiar head. And I am telling you right now: I Am Not Interested.
I will teach my children to trust me and not their money and material resources. Haven’t I already learned this lesson? That’s what I wanted to say to these well-meant words in that text.
Haven’t I already learned this lesson?
I work at my kitchen table and look out at the trees. COVID-19 notwithstanding, the leaves have come on steadily over these last weeks. Everything out there is green and shady, lush with life.
And the trail below these trees has been busier than I’ve ever seen it before, trafficked with people and their dogs, their bicycles, scooters, and skate boards, at all times of day.
The neighborhood children are all at home and, while they can no longer play together between the yards, they play as siblings. On Saturday, two sisters who live behind us played for hours with an Eno hammock I’d never seen them use before. This morning a mother carrying a large white bucket trailed her little boys, each of them on bicycles. I wondered if they might be headed to the creek for tadpoles.
Last week before the rain, a chalked hopscotch board appeared on the trail and gradually expanded over the course of days. At its height, it boasted 460 squares, which is a metaphor for quarantine if ever there was one.
Dear friends appeared at our backyard fence a week ago. They had walked to us, having discovered a path that connects our neighborhood to theirs. We called down to them in conversation from our deck for the better part of an hour.
And we’ve come to know neighbors who were anonymous to us before. There’s the couple who have a two-year-old daughter, and a family with three daughters who look to be six and younger. They size up in a row like stair-steps.
I’m seeing many dads out there, too, more than ever before. They come by in families, parents together and pulling their little ones in wagons, pushing strollers, or walking in a group. Just now a father came by on his bicycle, calling a riding route over his shoulder to his son. The boy, maybe five years old, pedaled hard after him. He was on a bicycle with training wheels and wore a spiked helmet.
Looks like the restoration of the family unit to me.
Maybe what made me angry was the fact that the words my friend sent me had been put in Jesus’ mouth. That’s audacious at best. Who’s to say that this is what he’s doing? That we can conceive–in the midst of a global pandemic– all or even some of what God is effecting in the midst of it?
Are his purposes ours to declare–and then tuck via quotation marks into the mouth of the Son of God?
I have a hard time with these things.
I realize that what I’m needing are his actual words. The Bible. That gift of tremendous scope and generosity that tells stories of faith and suffering, of waiting and pain and illness and need and of the God who loved and was faithfully himself in all of it.
I need words that connect me to him, words that are in his Word such that I know he understands. Words like these:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? -Psalm 13: 1
Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe. –Psalm 61: 1-2
Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD. -Psalm 27:14
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. –2 Corinthians 1: 3
and also these:
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. -Habakkuk 3: 17-18
Then I feel more free to ask the hard questions: Will I be joyful in God my Savior if the food runs out? If the money does? If one of us–or several, or all–gets ill with this virus?
I will bring dinner back to the kitchen table, read that text. And I think, Will he? OR will I again read this on the debit card scanner at the grocery store: “Insufficient Funds”?
Because that could happen again. The Bible promises the goodness of God, but it does not promise a life absent suffering.
In which case God must be what he says he is: the God of all comfort. I have known him to be this before, insufficient funds notwithstanding, and I count on him to continue.
Unlike the proverbial tree falling in the empty forest, an empty bank account makes no sound. You don’t hear it happen. You don’t wake up to it, as to so many birds or ambulance sirens.
Still, an empty bank account is something that the God of all comfort understands. And he knows the sound of a ventilator and the sound of one dying from COVID-19. He knows the agony of losing a loved one to the virus while you can’t be with him in the room.
Years ago now, when we were in the middle of a financial crisis, I stood sipping coffee next to a very wealthy woman. We were at church where we worshiped together, and I knew her in that casual way you know someone who goes to church with you and who loves the same Savior you do but with whom you’ve never spent any real time.
I knew her to be wealthy only by reputation. She isn’t a fancy dresser. I have no idea what kind of car she drives. But I had heard that she was very wealthy, that her house contained not only an indoor racquetball court (she is a racquetball instructor) but also an indoor swimming pool.
That day, she asked me how I was and I somehow felt safe with the intimacy. Or perhaps our money situation was so challenging that it was on the tip of my tongue. Whatever the reason, I gave her a brief run-down of our current troubles, all the while full of fear and the almost-crying that is so embarrassing.
I don’t know what I expected her answer to be. I know that part of me felt especially strange telling her this, because money makes things weird when you don’t have any and the people you are talking to do.
I remember this: she listened intently to me. And then, before walking away, she told me something true: that God understands our material needs, so I didn’t have to be worried about them.
That was the end of the conversation.
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” Matthew 6: 31-32.
I knew she was right. I shouldn’t be afraid. I really shouldn’t worry about it. God would be God and would be good to us (again) even if we ran out of money. Even if we had to sell our house or file for bankruptcy and all the specters of loss came barreling incarnate through our door.
But her response showed me something else, too: the keen awareness that she had never faced those specters herself. She had faithfully imparted to me some scriptural truth, but she had no idea what insufficient funds feels like.
And this is not her fault.
That text made me angry because it was a pat response. Yes, it was positive and hopeful, but it glossed over all the suffering that is COVID-19. It offered a bright side but made no room for the dark– in which case, who needs the brightness?
The Jesus I know and am learning isn’t like this. He doesn’t put a spin on things. He won’t pretend the sadness isn’t there. He doesn’t tell me not to be afraid and then walk away, casually sipping his coffee.
No. The sadness was his reason for coming here in the first place, for living among us, for putting on this beautiful and painful human life– a life more painful because it is beautiful, because the beauty calls us to something we can’t quite reach.
In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1: 4-5
The Jesus I know and am learning would never pretend the pain isn’t there. See him at the tomb of Lazarus, knowing he would raise his friend from the dead. He stood there weeping with Mary, because he knew that death is the enemy.
And then, a short time later, he himself died a brutal death.
Now he sits at the bedside of every COVID-19 patient in isolation. With every small business owner holding out hope for her livelihood. With every child who is hungry because they can’t get lunch at school. And with every teenager at the abusive end of an angry parent’s arm.
The God I know and am coming to know says of suffering, “Let me suffer with you,” and “Let me suffer for you.” He doesn’t give me all the answers, but he is the God of all comfort. And that is a God I can wait for.
I am still confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the LORD. -Psalm 27: 13-14