God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
Our local pastor Ed Jager reflected on an ancient song last Sunday March 22 (on Facebook, of course!): Psalm 46, the testimony of covenant trust in a time of pandemonium that ends “Be still and know that I am God.”
With self-isolation and social distancing, much is still these days of COVID. Not health care workers, we know. I’m married to one, and its tense. But my workplace, the world of academics, is no ivory tower at this time. Many are busy learning to teach on-line for the first time, re-vamping their syllabi, and helping students manage their up-ended semester. Other scholars are working tirelessly to find a vaccine for the virus, or some other method of relief. Engineers are creatively designing new masks, new respirators, new room dividers. Then there are those imagining solutions to the economic crisis, scheming plans and policies for government and its agencies to help citizens cope with loss of jobs and income. Not to be forgotten are those in the humanities and social sciences who are addressing issues of isolation, loneliness, and the existential angst that impending hardship and death inevitably bring. Artists of all kinds are using story, music, song, image and video to warn, inspire, or comfort a bewildered or grieving populace.
This is the truth of the situation: it is not a just a biological and technical issue needing just medical and technological solutions. Its a complex, multi-layered cultural, economic and personal shake-down.
We know not everyone contributes positively. Some are hoarding for themselves. Others are taking advantage of the moment to steal, wreak havoc or play cavalier with social distancing. Catastrophe, like squeezed toothpaste, exposes the character we have been cultivating inside us through our daily routines and meditations, for the common good, private gain, or other eager empires.
“Be still and know that I am God.” Who are we going to be in this global emergency?
Our pastor drew our attention to a letter written by a communications director named Kristin Flyntz in Connecticut. Entitled “An Imagined Letter from COVID-19 to Humans” our pastor re-constructed it as a letter from the Triune God, through the voice of his creation. But I ask: If Scripture suggests that trees can clap their hands and rocks cry out, can a virus prophesy? I’ve truncated and slightly altered it here in my own version (adding a lament), but you can easily find the original on the ‘net. Think of it as a prophetic plea from a sputtering planet:
Stop. Just stop.
It is no longer a request. It is a mandate.
We will bring the supersonic, high speed merry-go-round to a halt
We will stop
the frenetic, furied rush of illusions and “obligations” that keep you from hearing us cry out.
We will interrupt this broadcast, the endless cacophonous live-stream of divisions and distractions,
to bring you this long-breaking news:
We are not well.
None of us exempt; all of us are anxious, deflated, and worn out.
Last year, the firestorms that scorched the lungs of the earth
did not give you pause.
Nor the typhoons and floods submerging towns and landscapes.
It is hard to listen when you are so busy all the time, hustling to uphold the comforts and conveniences that scaffold your lives.
But the foundations are shaking and giving way,
buckling under the weight of your felt needs and insatiable desires.
We want to help you.
We bring the firestorms to your bodies
We bring the fever to your heads
We bring the burning, searing, and flooding to your lungs;
that is what we do to live;
But our rapid spread and the resulting chaos shouts:
We are not well.
Despite what you might think or feel, we are not just an enemy.
We are also Messenger. We are Prophet. Even, dare we say, Friend.
We are asking you:
To stop, to be still, to listen… and lament.
Lament for yourself, for your friends and family, and for this frantic planet. For all that is wounded, fighting for breath, desperate for fresh air, freedom and flourishing.
Many are afraid now.
Do not demonize your fear, and also, do not let it rule you. Instead, let it speak to you—in your stillness,
listen for its wisdom.
Notice if you are resisting.
Notice what you are resisting.
Stop. Just stop.
Can a crisis turn us to contemplation of our current condition–the state of the planet, but also the state of our souls? This is not to say COVID is punishment for climate change or that the senseless death of grandmothers and friends is intended as a symbolic critique of our modern lifestyle. Its much more than that. But it could, in part, be a sign.
Again, many are foregoing their own needs and rushing to help right now. It is a disaster. But they, too, need to take a moment, however brief, to hear what we may not have heard a month ago or a year ago. We are not well. We need help. We need to ease up on the pace of our productivity, consumption, and waste on this planet. Including our travel, our vacations, our frantic running around. This moment is an opportunity to pause in the midst of what ought to be an existential crisis as well as a medical and economic emergency. What is life all about, anyway?
“Be still and know that I am God.” This ancient wisdom suggests the opposite is equally true: “Be still and know that you are not God.” We have limits. We are soft, vulnerable, and mortal creatures, dependent on other creatures and God for breath, sustenance, and life. Scholarly cleverness may help us ameliorate some of the casualties, but its wisdom—a reverence for the wider horizons of our existence and the common good—that will give us longer-term sustainability and enable true human flourishing. In other words, a soberness about our fragility before the face of God is the beginning of wisdom.
We need help. We can’t make it on our own. For most of us, that means tethering ourselves to our homes, helping out neighbours as best we can, and re-evaluating what matters most. We can start planning for new routines and fresh priorities in the next world order post-COVID. We can be oriented by values that prioritize community, family, stewardship, sustainability, and public justice. And most importantly, perhaps, take up routine contemplation of our condition: the magnitude of our sin and misery, and the tenaciousness of our hope which rises above that brokenness, in God’s grace generously given in Jesus Christ.
Traditionally, Reformed Christian folk began their worship services with this invocation from Psalm 124: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” That is where faith starts, and in a time of COVID, where it ends as well: in God’s providence.