As Charles Dickens famously wrote, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Obviously, his time was more threatening than ours, but his description is apt in our unfolding reality in the United States and worldwide.
Let’s think first about “best.” A spaciousness of time has opened for people whose relentless schedules often leave them worn out and worn down. Staying home from church, school, sporting events and other gathering spaces has shifted our attention to a quieter rhythm for this Lenten season. This can be a gift, although admittedly one that is easier to accept by those of us who are privileged than by sisters and brothers who are the most vulnerable during this crisis.
As Dorothy Butler Bass has noted, “Sabbath is a gift waiting to be opened.” It may take a national and global emergency to slow us to a more appropriate human pace.
Lent is all about self-examination. Restricting some of the ways we distract ourselves from paying attention to the holy presence of God is an unexpected opportunity in these times. Listening intently to Scripture and lingering in prayer will bear spiritual fruit. We can invite Jesus to lead us through this Gethsemane of unknowing, and he promises never to leave or forsake us.
“Many members of our communities cannot see a clear pathway through the present crisis.”
Pastors are shepherding their flocks in creative ways. They are digging deep to find words of care and comfort. They are mining scriptural texts for guidance and refining their own faith and hope as they lead others. They are learning new technologically enhanced means of connecting, as are congregants. It is a joy to see ministers at their best as they grow ever more intentional in their tending of their scattered sheep.
It is the best of times for loved ones to hunker down together and do the things that frantic schedules typically prevent. Working jigsaw puzzles, reading books, playing games and watching movies (and a presidential debate) gather us and make us present to one another. We may even rediscover why we like these folks! Perhaps this forced togetherness amid all the appropriate social distancing will give some of us opportunity to renew and deepen our relationships.
Presently I am in a two-week quarantine at home because I recently traveled through some virus hot spots in Asia on my journey to and from Myanmar. Yet, I am one of the fortunate ones; I was able to return just prior to the crush of people coming home from Europe following the announcement of the travel ban. I was not delayed at the border and got home without incident – although it took 50 hours because of cancelled flights.
For many, however, this is the worst of times. Health care workers and other frontline responders and caregivers are besieged. Retirement communities feel great threat to their residents and staff (nursing homes and similar facilities even more so). Schoolteachers, administrators and parents are scrambling to deliver constructive learning experiences. Hourly-wage workers face income insecurity. Some businesses are devastated financially, and many others have had to take severe measures. And the list goes on. Many members of our communities cannot see a clear pathway through the present crisis.
People on the margins of society who depend upon services such as shelter for their homeless family, meals at community ministries, transportation to medical appointments and the provision of childcare are trying to navigate their way through multiple daily challenges. Already fraying safety nets are further torn (or have already been dismantled by national and statewide policy changes). Great hardship abounds.
Those on the margins are not able to stock up or hoard. Basic human needs will go wanting, with tragic consequences.
It is the worst of times when racial profiling is heightened. A friend of mine of Chinese heritage tells of the accusatory behavior leveled against her family. It is a human propensity to scapegoat others; many give in to their fears and to their worst xenophobia in this kind of climate. Sadly, our president often embodies such behavior and fosters it in others. As followers of Jesus, we should know better than to succumb to this kind of denigration of others created in the image of God.
“A spaciousness of time has opened for people whose relentless schedules often leave them worn out and worn down.”
It is the worst of times when persons with means think only about their own concerns. Tales of grocery store competition are replete with selfishness as stocking up has taken an apocalyptic turn. Worry about having enough displays little of the trust the gospel enjoins. There is a better way, truly. Paul instructs us to let the mind of Christ Jesus be in us so that we are “thinking of the interests of others before our own” (Philippians 2:4).
Humans are “social animals,” and we were meant for one another, as N.T. Wright put it in Simply Christian, his thoughtful commendation of faith to generations of skeptics. We must find ways to sustain one another, especially those who are isolated by the pandemic. Cards and calls demonstrate concern and are virus-free. Emails mediate presence, and FaceTime and Zoom help us see one another’s faces. Generous financial support of trustworthy social service agencies and ministries can have a direct impact on those who are most at risk.
Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, the historical novel set in the time leading up to the French Revolution, tells how disparate persons experienced the best and worst of times. It is cautionary and offers wisdom for how to conduct ourselves in the midst of crisis. While we are in no way beset by all that Dickens’ time portended, we have some choices about how to live in our own time.
May God give us the wisdom and courage to choose wisely.
EDITOR’S NOTE: BNG is committed to providing timely and helpful news and commentary about ways Christians and churches are responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Look for the hashtag #intimeslikethese. You can also use this form to help us identify compelling stories of faith and ministry in these challenging times.