Reflecting on Paul and Woodie Guthrie, Bishop David Bard talks about some things we are learning during this hard time of global pandemic …
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (II Corinthians 4:8-10)
From these words, and other New Testament accounts of his life, we know that Paul experienced difficulties and challenges. I don’t think he ever lived with a pandemic, but his words seem profoundly appropriate for our time. I hear echoes of an old Woody Guthrie song, “I been doin’ some hard travelin’/I thought you knowed … I’ve been doin’ some hard travelin’ Lord.”
Friends, we are doing some hard traveling. Since mid-March, to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus and to ensure that our health care systems could reasonably treat the sick and dying, we have suspended in-person gatherings at our churches. Many have been staying home, limiting going out, not visiting with family and friends. Some have lost their jobs. Some have watched loved ones die, though they had to “watch” from afar. Some have gone to work, anxious about how their work might bring them into contact with someone infected with the coronavirus.
We are doing some hard traveling, and we all know it. Sometimes it is difficult to know what to say on this hard road. Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School. At age 35, this teacher, scholar, wife, and mother, was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. Out of her experience, she wrote a book, Everything Happens for a Reason And Other Lies I’ve Lived. Her book offers a wonderful appendix about what not to say when someone is going through a terrible time, things like “everything happens for a reason.” “The only thing worse than saying this is pretending that you know the reason…. When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason.”
I understand some of the dynamics of the coronavirus — how communicable it is, how it impacts the human body, and some of the reasons why people’s bodies react so differently to it. I cannot answer the question of why this virus found its way into the global human community at this time. Even more foolish would be for me to proffer a grand theological rationale for why this is happening.
I do not believe God sent the virus or allowed it to jump from animals to humans for some particular reason. God did not cause this to happen to teach us something. Yet, God may desire that we learn something through this.
Paul could both be honest about his difficulties and find ways he had learned and grown through them – afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not despairing, struck down but not destroyed. Through it all, Jesus found a way to shine through.
We are learning some things and should be learning others if we haven’t already. We are learning new ways to worship, and we will want to carry some of these lessons into the future. We are learning about reaching people who may not be able to be with us all the time on a Sunday morning. We are learning to use technology to learn and pray. We are learning how to stay in touch with people, even if we may not be able to visit them. We are learning about the vital importance of our ministries to feed and care.
We are learning how much we miss seeing each other. We are learning to appreciate simple gifts of life that we often took for granted. We are learning more about grief and gratitude. Psychotherapist Francis Weller in an interview once said something which has been with me since I read it. “The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering.” We might be learning, should be learning, deep lessons about grief, gratitude, and compassion.
If we are not learning some hard lessons about ways in which our society needs to change, lessons about social and economic inequality, we should be. I agree that we are all in this together and hope we are learning something about human solidarity through this pandemic. While we are all in this together, it is also evident that we are not all affected in the same ways.
The coronavirus has had a more devastating impact on the African-American, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American communities. Poorer health indicators for these communities before the virus have been made more glaringly evident by the virus. We should also be learning something about those who live on the economic margins. Many of those considered “essential workers” have before now often lived on the economic margins – cashiers at grocery stores and gas stations, food service workers, those who clean hospitals. Perhaps we should also be learning some lessons about arrogance. Too many of us in the United States seemed to think we are immune to this kind of tragedy, or that if something like this were to happen, our technological abilities would rescue us quickly. We should learn something about our place in nature and the global community.
We are doing some hard traveling, and there are lessons to be learned along the way, perhaps some hard lessons. Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in a recent meditation, offered that perhaps through this pandemic, God is helping us, and wants us, to learn “a new neighborly normal.” Like you, I want something more familiar to return, but I also want to learn and grow through this. I want to arrive at a new normal, a new neighborly normal.
Just a few verses after those I’ve already cited, Paul writes, “so we do not lose heart.” Even doing our hard traveling, let’s not lose heart. Not losing heart is to keep reaching out to others for worship, learning, prayer, and caring. Not losing heart is to remain patient with each other. Not losing heart is doing things for the common good, things like staying home when we can for now, and wearing masks when we need to go out. Not losing heart is letting our hearts be stretched by grief and gratitude. Not losing heart is to seek a newer world on the other side of this pandemic, a more neighborly world, a more just world, a more compassionate world.
We are doing some hard traveling, and we do not lose heart, and the journey is still joyful.