And just like that, everything stopped. A little over a month ago I had started to follow a story developing in Wuhan, China. A virus, a novel virus, had somehow driven the industrial heart of China to a standstill. It is astonishing how something not even considered to be a living organism (since it doesn’t reproduce without our help) can defeat the best measures that us ‘intelligent’ creatures could throw at it.
We are fortunate, at this time at least, that the Covid-19 isn’t as deadly as some viruses. Unfortunately, it is very contagious, it is serious enough that it could easily overwhelm our medical infrastructure and, if there were no effort made to slow or contain the virus, it is very likely that Covid-19 would kill far more than the seasonal flu. As a precaution against a worse case scenario many governments around the world have ordered a suspension of unnecessary commerce and non-essential events as a means to blunt the spread.
For me personally this comes at a time when I was close to being overwhelmed by my workload and falling further and further behind. I had worried (and perhaps not nearly enough) about how I would meet deadlines, particularly as far as my income taxes, and stay ahead of the growing stack of truss layouts. The economy had, in three years, gone from pedestrian growth to bullet train speed. I dreamed about not having to drive my long commute, freeing time to finish dozens of waiting projects or basically gaining a little time somewhere in my busy schedule to finally breathe again and relax a bit.
Church, entering the Lenten season, did not seem to offer much relief for this breakneck pace. No, if anything the additional services were only adding to my already impossible list of obligations and stress. Looking back over the past months and years, at my growing list of responsibilites, my life was on a trajectory that could not be sustained. I needed a break. I needed a push back against all those who depended on me and would pressure me to perform at a higher and higher level.
Lent was supposed to be about the withdrawal of Jesus into the wilderness for forty days, how had it become yet another thing to cram into an already overcrowded schedule?
Going Nowhere Fast…
That seems to be the world we live in.
Busy, busy busy and many don’t even know why anymore.
I’m amazed by how traffic flies on the interstate. I tend to set my cruise at or right above the speed limit and get passed like I’m grandma out on a Sunday drive. It makes no sense. Of course, then, I’m really no better in that it is next to impossible for me to focus on one thing even while hurdling through the early morning darkness or traveling back in the full grid of pushy tailgating morons. Would it really hurt them that much to slow down?
Perhaps (while ironically using the device to write this) it would be good for me to put the phone down for a moment?
The same people snicking about toilet paper hoarders, a week earlier, have about lost their minds when the governments of various states started to tell them to close shop for a bit and stay home.
Those infected with the restless American spirit pile up wealth for themselves, more than anyone else in the world, and yet the thought of taking a few weeks off for sake of their vulnerable neighbors will induce a panic. “How will we eat?” Cries out the guy, with three properties, to the guy who recently bought a brand new truck when the old one was just fine. We, unlike many others in the world, could afford a week off to reflect on ourselves and our cultural priorities.
We could be the busiest, furthest traveling, civilization in all of human history, but we aren’t the first people scurrying about our various responsibilites and fretting about the lack of help. A few weeks ago, while contemplating the fevered pace of modern life and the justifications given for it, I had to think of the example of a stressed out woman who lived two millennia ago and finally expressed her exasperation about the lack of help to Jesus:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”(Luke 10:38-42 NIV)
There are many anxiety-ridden people in our society today and that fact has become all the more clear in the past few weeks. There are many who, like Martha, are working at their full capability, struggling to keep up with their seemingly ever-increasing workload and begging for help. From those panic buying to those complaining about their favorite events being cancelled, both are missing the perspective of Mary, who sat listening, and really do need to take a deep breath and maybe just appreciate that they are still breathing rather than be so worried about things that will pass away soon enough anyways.
Be Still and Know…
Everyone, from government leaders to those who think that they know better than government leaders, wants to be in control. And that is what drives the frantic pace of our lives. We think, “if I just could have that one more property” or “after this year I’ll kick back and relax,” yet when we get there there is always that one more thing that needs to be done before we can feel secure. There are many who pursue this sort of material completeness until the day that they die. Some do better than others at accumulating their pile of stuff, some are like this foolish rich man Jesus describes:
Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”(Luke 12:15-21 NIV)
Listen up, folks! This shutdown may be the last wake up call you get from God. Instead of complaining about your schedule being upset and all the things that you want to do, including church services, maybe it is time to be like Mary and do some serious contemplation instead?
When Jesus told the crowds, “take no thought for tomorrow,” he was likely talking to an audience with many who lived hand to mouth (like many still do in the world) and had every reason to worry about where the next meal was coming from. While we fret and fuss about the inconvenience, fight over toilet paper, some will literally be going hungry while trying to wait this virus out.
This Lenten shut down can be a very good thing to sort out what is truly life sustaining from the truly frivolous. My design work has aided in the construction of many barns over the past few years and there had been a great deal of optimism before everything came crashing down a little over a week ago. Suddenly, much like that ambitious fool whose life was required of him the very night he felt satisfied, we too have been forced to take inventory over our lives and it would be a good opportunity to reorder our priorities. When is the last time you’ve thanked God for the chance to work and have food on the table? Have you noticed the sun still shining as the stock values plunge?
We may have BMWs to show our prestige and iPhones (emphasis on the ‘i’) to keep our schedules straight, but we aren’t the first self-important generation that needed brought to it’s knees and reminded that it was not sovereign over anything, that their power over the earth was only an illusion. It is the wise person who lives in awe of the mystery of everything that the foolish take for granted. It is the very thing that the Psalmist tells us to be still and know:
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. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.(Psalms 46:1-11 NIV)
Time to Reset and Refocus…
We are not in control. And, “except you become as little children,” (Matt. 18:3) everything you accomplish in this life will eventually be wiped away and forgotten. All of those barns my long hours and overtime have made possible will eventually, maybe in less than a century, be reduced to rubble, rot away or be burned. Nothing we have built with our hands, no great intellectual endeavor, should take our eyes off of the true sustainer of life. That sustainer being that which has set this universe in motion and holds it together while we frail critters delude ourselves, imagining our own invulnerability, and will some day need to face the reality of our own situation.
I was writing this blog (afterall, you, my audience, are too important to wait) as my dad toiled with the landscaping outside. There had been many times where I had intended to buckle down and help for a little, despite questioning if all the work was ever worth it, but got swept away in my own projects before actually lending a hand. Today, with no gym ritual or other routine to keep, I decided it was time to haul a couple wheelbarrow loads of mulch before finishing this blog and borrowing my dad’s truck to haul a few loads out of my old house in preparation for the new tenants.
I do not believe Covid-19 will be the end of us. But let it be the end of this paradigm we are in. Let it be a time to slow down, to respect our fellow man and to, most importantly, be in awe of God. It is truly, in these reminders of our own mortality, that God’s mercy is made manifest. We can be the hands that help, the ears that listens, and the voice of calm in troubled times. We live surrounded by chaos on all sides, it is terrifying if you stare into that abyss of uncertainty of the days and months ahead, but those who have faith in God never have a reason to fear and will always bring hope as long as they have breath.
So, take a deep breath, Martha, get your soul right and even Covid-19 cannot snuff out the light that you’ll bring into the world. For a Christian there is beauty even in death. Live in love, not fear, my friends, because in love there is a breath of life that cannot be extinguished. Stop ‘adulting’ for a little, stop being like Martha, and learn to be a bit more like Mary. Use this Lenten season to be still, to sit at the feet of Jesus, and set your eyes on what is greater than our daily grind. All of the activity here will eventually come to an end, what have you done of eternal value lately?