But Lord, Where Do We Go from Here?
Covid 19. It’s my first experience of a pandemic:––and I suspect it’s your first, too. A point of pride? I think not. I live from day to day. I cook. I clean. I work on my garden. I play with my dog. I make phone calls, and write texts. I watch the news, or amble through the Internet. I read. I think. I pray. I dream. I feel both safe, and ‘trapped,’ at the same time.
When London went into lockdown in 1606 (on account of the bubonic plague) Shakespeare wrote King Lear. He also worked on Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra. During the Great Plague of 1665 and its aftermath, Isaac Newton began to invent calculus––an achievement he shares with Leibniz––and not only worked on his law of gravitation, but his wholly original theory of optics.
What have I achieved so far? Not much, to be honest. Like everyone else, one question burns in my heart. Just what can one expect in the days, weeks, months, and years, to come? I wish, I knew. If there’s anything true about a pandemic, it drags in its terrifying wake far more questions, than answers. And these days, even ordinary, “everyday” questions are suddenly freighted with deep anxiety, and open wide a Pandora’s Box of grief and confusion.
About a month ago the actress Katey Sagal, star of Married … With Children, and Sons of Anarchy—two programs I have never watched––sent a rather innocuous tweet to her half-million followers: “Checking in with everyone,” wrote she. “How are you doing?” Well, you would think she had lanced a boil.
“Scared, anxious, stressed coated in a thin layer of hope,” replied one person.
“Doing fine, and hoping that this nightmare will be over soon,” said another.
“I’m getting through by eating ice cream,” said a third. (“What kind?” asked Sagal. “Rocky Road,” came the reply.)
But then were other responses, rather less bucolic. “Terrible,” said one person. “I’m an unemployed bartender. Never been unemployed in my life. I couldn’t be more terrified . . .”
“Hanging in there.” said another. “Working from home until mid April . . . Mom is under Hospice care at her nursing home and, as of today, we can no longer visit. That really, really kills me.”
Indeed, for most people, the questions which Covid-19 poses are deep and existential. In other words, they have to do with things that really, really matter: God, the world, relationships, truth, knowledge, existence, hope, despair, purpose. In short, not only the most fundamental questions about existence, but who we are and why we live.
As Jesus approached the end of his ministry similar questions began to surface among those who had followed him. After three heady, “mind-blowing” years tracing the footsteps of the Master,
it was clear things were about to change. Just what can they expect in the days, weeks,
and months, and years, to come? They wished they knew. Even after Jesus had died and rose again. the disciples felt like their lives had been torn apart.
Not even the Resurrection made sense:––for as extraordinary as that was, in the days leading up to his last sojourn in Jerusalem Jesus made it clear that he would not be with them much longer.
At least, not in the way in which he had also been with them.
And so he did his best to calm them down. “Do not let your heart be troubled,” Jesus insisted.
“Believe in God; believe also in me. For in my father’s house are many mansions; “many rooms,” if you will. “For I am going––i.e. I am leaving––to prepare a place for you. And if I go, if I leave to prepare a place for you, I will come again to receive you to myself, that where I am, there, you might be also.”
“Ok, fair enough. But what does this all mean?” they said to themselves, waxing existential.
“Just what can one expect in the days, weeks, months, and years, to come?”
At this point Thomas spoke up. If not distinguished by faith, he was at least distinguished by honesty––by “frankness” and “realness” as a contemporary might put it. “But Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. We really don’t. So, how can we know the way?”
To which Jesus replies, “But Thomas! I am the way; I am the Way, and the truth, and the life.
Don’t you see? In other words, cleave to me, and I will show the Way. Why? “Because I am the Truth, and I am the Life.”
It was a rather audacious, even arrogant claim––you have to admit––especially for those who cleave to the notion, as many moderns do, that Truth is radically subjective, and wholly unreal;
that it’s whatever you make it out to be; that it’s different for every person.
“Moreover,” Jesus went on, “I am sending Someone to help.” In fact, “I will ask the Father,” Jesus goes on, “and he will give you another Advocate to help you, and be with you, forever— the Spirit of truth. You know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. My dear beloved men, and women, I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. And because I live, you also will live. And the Advocate, the Holy Spirit (whom the Father will send in my name) will teach you all things:
and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you; My peace: not as the world gives, give I to you. Do not therefore let your hearts be troubled
and do not be afraid.”
In other words, “hold on!” Hold on. Just two little words. Easy to say, hard to do. Remember the old 1968 Bee Gees song: the chorus of which reads, “I’ve just got to get a message to you”––remember it??? “Hold on, hold on. One more hour and my life will be through, hold on, hold on.” But of course this is easier said than done.
Ever been through a shattering experience? An illness, a death, an accident, a loss, an irrevocable change of life? If you have, you hardly need me to tell you what it’s like,
nor how difficult it can be––at times like that––to cleave to anything, or hold on tightly to the heart of God:––or seek God’s voice in amongst the sheer cacophony of human suffering, when there are clearly “far more questions than answers.” You just want to give up; or give in; or give over. Yet above all else, God says, “Hear my voice. Cleave to me, and hold on.”
Do you remember the 1981 film Ordinary People? It remains on my top-ten list of best films.
It won the Best Picture Oscar for that year, and was the directorial debut of Robert Redford. “An extraordinary motion picture,” reads copy. And so it was. “Ordinary People is an intense examination of a family being torn apart by tension and tragedy. Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore star as the upper-middle-class couple whose “ordinary” existence is irrevocably shattered by the death of their oldest son in a boating accident. Timothy Hutton is the younger son Conrad, the surviving son, struggling against suicide and guilt left by the drowning.”
Psychologists call this “survivor’s guilt.” And for most of the film, Conrad is utterly trapped in it. Until one night, that is, when he finally comes to terms with himself with Dr. Berger, his brilliant and kindly psychiatrist:
CONRAD. I gotta... I gotta... I gotta get off the hook for it.
I gotta get off the hook! says Conrad.
DR BERGER. For what? asks Berger.
CONRAD. For what I did!
DR BERGER. What did you do?
CONRAD. What I did to my brother!
And here he is referring to the boating accident
DR BERGER. What did you do?
CONRAD. We were fooling around out there on the ocean;
we should’ve come in when it started to look bad.
DR BERGER. OK, so you made a mistake.
So how long are you gonna punish yourself?
When you gonna quit?
CONRAD. Why do things have to happen to people? It isn’t fair.
DR BERGER. You’re right. It isn’t fair.
CONRAD. You just do one wrong thing... and...
DR BERGER.. And what was the one wrong thing you did?
Suddenly the lights go on.
CONRAD. I hung on. I hung on. I stayed with the boat.
DR BERGER. Exactly. Now. You can live with that. Can’t you?
Dear people of God, Covid-19 is shaking the world to the core. But do not let your heart be troubled. Hanging on to God is exactly what you need to do, while the storm rages. Cleave to God; hold on to God, even Jesus, the sovereign Lord––who is the Way; the Truth; the Life––
And never let go!! Let the roots of your heart grow deeply into God, and hold on. You may never fully understand he why’s and wherefore’s of present existence. (In fact I daresay that’s a given.) But what is that to the present time????
When I first became God’s person, an old friend of mine took great delight in laughing me to scorn, repeatedly, as people sometimes do. Barely out of high school he liked to impress people
with his newly-minted atheism and dime-store philosophy; his cleverness; his scofflaw pearls of unimpeachable wisdom––or so he thought them to be.
“Religion is a crutch for the weak, you fool. I thought you far more intelligent than that!”
Little did he know that in choosing to cleave to God as a whole way of life, I was on a journey far greater than myself: greater than science; greater than art; greater than civilization . . . Far greater than the world and everything in it. By God’s grace I had taken hold of life, and had actually begun to live wisely, quite in spite of myself, God being my helper.
Just what can one expect in the days, weeks, months, and years, to come?
Does it really matter? No. Because Jesus lives, I will live––and you will live. Therefore hold on; hold on to the life which is truly life, even Jesus.