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News programs on TV used to use the phrase “And now this . . .” to toggle between one news story and the next, especially when there was no natural segue between them. News stories are often in a more or less random order once the big story of the day is completed. As I was casting about yesterday what to write today, I did not hit on anything terribly compelling. So since a colleague or two of mine here on The Twelve sometimes post random thoughts, I will do that too. Imagine “And now this . . .” coming between each. I might not be able to get a full blog out of any of these musings but I will muse away anyway.
The Disparity: In a final Psalms and Wisdom Literature class session yesterday the closing prayer was a group prayer in which we were all encouraged to share a praise, a lament, and a thanksgiving, modeling our prayer time after the kinds of prayers in the Psalter. I was struck by the fact that one student shared as a praise the gift of science and the development—far faster than we might have dared hope—of COVID vaccines. Yet when we switched to the sharing of laments, a lament was offered about the millions of people who don’t trust the vaccine, doubt the need for one, actively campaign against anyone’s getting a shot and most of this based on a torrent of misinformation. A praise and a lament for the same thing. That sums up where we are long about now.
The Irony: In an Op-Ed the other day, New York Times columnist David Brooks claimed that had the United States in 1941 been as riven and distrusting as it is in 2021, we never could have pulled together to win World War II. There is little left of a nation-wide sense of the importance of shared sacrifice. Connected to my first observation, Brooks noted this in terms of getting vaccinated so that herd immunity could be reached and we could all get back to pre-COVID levels of normal. But experts now think vaccine hesitancy and resistance will mean we cannot reach herd immunity in the foreseeable future. Brooks’s frustration came out in one line when he said, “No one is being asked to invade Iwo Jima but just walk into a damn CVS.” This reminded me of an irony many of us have noticed before: in one sense the American public has vastly more information at its fingertips than people had in 1941. But the access to more knowledge and information has not made us smarter. In many ways it has made us much, much dumber and more ignorant.
Respect: At Calvin Seminary as at colleges, universities, seminaries, high school, and schools at all levels we are ending now the third semester in a row kinked and twisted by COVID. Spring semester last year knocked the stuffing out of everyone when we had to shift gears overnight when lockdowns and stay-at-home orders came out. But in this past academic year, the Fall and Spring semesters have been only marginally less stressful. I have so much respect for my colleagues and my students—and for teachers and students at all levels—who have worked so hard to make things work under very difficult and ever-shifting circumstances. In my school everyone is tired and there is palpable enthusiasm that the Finish Line is in sight We’re going to make it but only because in this case, we really did all pull together to help one another. And I respect that shared effort in my colleagues and students so very much.
My Fellow Pastors: Actually I have not been an active pastor in a congregation for nearly 16 years already, but I still identify as a pastor. Still, I have been spared the stress and spiritual harm that have come to so many of my friends in ministry. A colleague from Fuller Seminary posted an article link on Facebook the other day. The article noted recent surveys of parish pastors and the very high percentage who have said they seriously considered quitting over the past year. And these are the pastors who have not (yet) called it quits but there is also an alarming number who did quit, left their congregations, and just plain burned out. Seldom in recent church history have the sheep turned on their shepherds as they did during COVID over masks, social distancing, in-person worship practices, and political feuds. But from what I have heard from pastors, as hard as that active carping and in-fighting have been, even more painful has been the retrospective sense that all the Gospel preaching they had done for 5, 10, 15, 20 years so clearly did not sink in for some people. All of us preachers like to think our sermons shape people probably more than is really the case. But to see such a wholesale abandonment of neighbor love and the bearing of the Fruit of the Spirit is, to put it mildly, demoralizing.
Historical Tidbit: My colleague Kathy Smith at the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship shared on a Zoom staff meeting recently that she was reading the memoir of a CRC pastor who ministered in Denver during the Swine Flu pandemic across 1918. At one point he mentioned calling on a parishioner and that as he left this person’s house, he was donning his white surgical mask and then washed his hands in the snow outside. Another church member witnessed this and upbraided the pastor for his mask and handwashing, claiming that faith and not fear must be our posture. The more things change . . . .
A High Note: But lest I end on such a downbeat, I was cheered to see all the Facebook postings on Sunday of fully vaccinated families being able safely to gather for Mothers Day. After a year of no contact or only virtual contact or glimpses only through glass windows, the joy of being able to embrace, share a meal, take multi-generational photos was refreshing to see. We can only pray that the day when we will be even more fully back to that kind of “normal” will not be too far off. It is within our power and will to get there. I hope and pray we do.