As a pastor, I get asked to pray at all sorts of events and for all sorts of things, but the other night I experienced a first in my ministerial career. I was asked to pray for an imaginary friend, and I did. I wasn’t asked to pray as a pastor, though. I was asked to pray as a dad.
I was putting our 4-year-old son, Isaac, to bed. We read a story, said our prayers and then it was time to go to sleep. But Isaac suddenly got very serious and said he needed to tell me something. He explained that Sticky, his rainbow-colored imaginary friend, was sick. When I asked how Sticky had gotten ill, Isaac told me that he had breathed something in and that it had made him very sick.
Sticky first showed up after this past Thanksgiving. That’s when our long-time family dog, Baxter, passed away unexpectedly. Isaac told us that Sticky had showed up to make him feel better, so that he wouldn’t be sad anymore. My wife, Clary, and I wondered how long Sticky would stick around, but even after we got a new dog a couple of months ago Sticky has remained present.
We’ve noticed over these last few months that Sticky is how our son processes his feelings, particularly when he doesn’t exactly know how to put what he’s feeling into words. Isaac doesn’t get scared, but Sticky gets scared. Isaac doesn’t get upset or sad, but Sticky does. Clary and I have asked about Sticky regularly since he showed up because it’s a way we can get our son to open up and tell us how he’s really feeling in a way he can express.
“This pandemic will wound all of us, and we must treat one another with the grace, mercy and gentleness such wounds require.”
Over the last three weeks as the novel coronavirus has changed life for everybody here in the United States and in many places around the world, Clary and I have noticed some changes in our children. Our fiercely independent, 22-month-old daughter has become incredibly clingy. She now wants to be held nearly all the time and wants to hold her mommy’s hand while she eats. If my wife or I leave the room for a second, she becomes incredibly upset. And our 4-year-old son has now become scared of the dark, a fear that we had long ago vanquished.
Our children have enjoyed spending more time with their parents, and they’ve loved all of the additional walks we’ve taken as a family, but they miss seeing their friends at daycare, preschool and church. They’re incredibly social creatures, and they miss being around people.
And they are not alone. Children everywhere and of all ages are picking up on, internalizing and processing the fear and uncertainty this global pandemic is causing. They’re worried about their own health and safety. They intuitively feel the economic anxiety their parents are experiencing.
In many homes, children are going unattended because of sick parents or a single mother or father who is sick or trying to work. And in a growing number of homes in poor neighborhoods, children are going hungry.
Already this virus is leaving physical, economic, mental and emotional scars in its wake, and it’s exposing the fragility of an economy and a society many Americans thought were healthy and strong.
A few weeks ago, in a sermon to my congregation, I quoted Barbara Brown Taylor, the well-known Episcopal priest, author and theologian. Taylor wrote:
“Lord, I believe, but help thou my unbelief, because I still do not want to die. I believe Jesus has power to raise the dead, only I do not want him practicing on me. I want a God who will cut my losses and cushion my failures, a God who will grant me a life free from pain. I want a God who will rescue me from death, who will delete it from the human experience and find another way to operate.
“What I, what all of us, have instead is a God who resurrects us from the dead, putting an end to it by working through it instead of around it – creating life in the midst of grief, creating love in the midst of loss, creating faith in the midst of despair – resurrecting us from our big and little deaths, showing us by his own example that the only road to Easter morning runs smack through Good Friday.”
This Holy Week, as we journey to Golgotha and then on Sunday celebrate the empty tomb, I’m reminded that scars remain even after Resurrection. After this pandemic is over, after things return to “normal” with school and restaurants and churches being open, we will still have the scars from our experience. And how well these scars heal in the future is directly related to how we treat our wounds and the wounds of our neighbors now.
I prayed for my son’s imaginary friend because in doing so I was praying for him. Together, we prayed for Sticky, for all those who are sick and hurting, and for the doctors, nurses and medical professionals who are working so hard to help people get better. We prayed that we might give people peace, comfort and healing in any way that we could. After that, Isaac rolled over and went to sleep (though I was sure to leave a light on).
“How well these scars heal in the future is directly related to how we treat our wounds and the wounds of our neighbors now.”
We all are experiencing these little metaphorical deaths, and many are experiencing heartbreakingly real ones. This pandemic will wound all of us, and we must treat one another with the grace, mercy and gentleness such wounds require. Look at how those around you are expressing their fear and pain. Rarely will they do that directly or overtly. Be willing to go outside your comfort zone and do something different to give someone the peace and comfort they need.
In the process, with the help of a loving and mighty God, you’ll help heal their wounds and yours as well. And perhaps on the other side of this pandemic, on the other side of Resurrection, our wounds will have healed in ways better and more profound than we could have imagined, and our society will be stronger, more connected and more compassionate than it was before this global tragedy unfolded.
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