It did not take long for the COVID-19 pandemic to start threatening and claiming lives with recognizable names. The first loss in the country music family was Joe Diffie, a lesser but not insignificant force in the genre’s 1990’s explosion. His hits were mostly upbeat and whimsical tunes with simple rural themes. He told us how there’s just something women like about a “Pickup Man” (as in truck) and how unfading love got declared on a local water tower in “John Deere Green.” His best, by far in my estimation, was his vocal blending with Mary Chapin Carpenter, whose soft, soulful voice remains my favorite of the era. You can feel the heartfelt love, doubt, and fear when asking for someone’s affection is “Too much to expect, but not too much to ask.” My Lord, what a line.
As this crisis covers more ground, takes more lives, and alters all others, it leaves us with far more questions than answers. How bad will it get? Is anybody safe? Does leadership know what it’s doing? Will sports return to the screen, even if fans can’t get in the seats? What’s the economic fallout going to be? Will I ever retire now? Can politicians serve more and posture less? Are competence and character at best an aspirational value? How will faith communities weather the short run and be reconstructed in the long one? How long before most has it or knows someone who does? And the list goes on and on. The realist in me knows these answers won’t come soon and that we probably won’t like them when they do. But this persistent positive force of mine keeps wondering if some things might be better once we get to the other side of this. Not everything is good; but there is good in everything.
Is there a chance that we might emerge from this less divided, more sensitive, less selfish, and more appreciative? It’s a big ask given our recent trajectory. We are watching as health care workers and grocery clerks get the proud reverence usually reserved for our military. Could scrubs be the new BDUs? I’d like to think that this might help us say “Thank you” more and demand less from the people so often taken for granted that we now rely on. Like teachers, whose daily shoes parents have been filling and seem really ready to take off. Walk a mile in …?
Could family time become once again more precious? I’m not talking about time spent running between personal pursuits, but real heart to heart and face to face time. I have seen more family walks in our community in the last four weeks than I did in the previous four years. Good sign. Seniors like my mom are quarantined away from children, grandchildren, and friends. It’s been hard for us to stay away, but so much harder on them. Protection from a virus that can take their lives requires the isolation that saps the soul. Tough trade. When these doors do open back up, I hope we are more inclined to go say “Hello in there.” I know I will be.
As Rabbi Herold Kushner taught us that a virus has no conscience; it doesn’t show favorites. But its impact is revealing flaws in our system that leave particular pockets of people more at risk. The poor. The elderly. The urban and the rural. African Americans. The ones whose systemic health care deficiencies had rendered them more vulnerable to begin with. Will we be willing to learn what COVID-19 can teach and address the inequities in nutrition, health, housing, and education that surely leaves some folks less protected? We can hope.
We’ve learned what we can live without, and maybe that will make us more selective on how we allocate our money going forward. Forcing some of us to slow down might lead us to reassess the breakneck pace we have insisted on keeping up for the last twenty years. To be busy and depleted has become virtuous at the expense of relationships and the care of self and soul. An undisciplined pursuit of more has left us with a lot less of what matters more. COVID-19 could teach us this lesson.
And what about the church? I am foolish enough to believe that this virus may provide the impetus for spiritual deepening and authentic Christian witness. The fear and anxiety we are feeling point us all toward the God we have been missing and the frailty of things that have taken his place. Throughout history, the church has been at the forefront of plagues and could be again. See a need, meet a need and do it in the spirit of Jesus even if it’s costly. The world is looking to see if the church has anything to offer in their search for a mooring point in these tumultuous seas. Grandstanders, divine conspiracy theorists, serial judgers, and shepherds who endanger the flocks they are called to protect, as well as the communities they are called to love and serve are not helping. Maybe we can.
Congregational disruption, however, is not without its positives. Corporate worship and fellowship might be valued more since it has been deprived. Ministers have been forced to be more creative and find new ways to be attentive. Not bad things. Neither is depending on God’s people to care for one another with more urgency and intentionality. I have spent my ministry telling folks that attending church is not the same as being church. COVID-19 has forced that upon us and I hope that when we come back, we do not go back.
Do I think all this and more will happen on the other side of Corona? Well, to borrow from Cornell West, who borrowed from the prophet Zechariah, “I cannot be an optimist, but I am a prisoner of hope. My experience suggests that the shelf life of seasonal better angels is a fairly short one.” But I’m praying that maybe this time it can be different … just maybe. I know it’s too much to expect.
But it’s not too much to ask.
And Lord, we’re asking.