I confess that I've gotten a little obsessed with the numbers.
That's not completely new for me. I am often aware of how many hours (and minutes!) are left in the school day, how many classes remain until summer comes, how many miles are yet to be traveled before the trip is finished -- that sort of thing. But lately, it's even worse. I hate to admit it, but the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus website is the first thing I check when I open my laptop.
So many numbers!
The number of cases. The number of deaths.
The number of countries that have been affected.
The number of seconds that a good hand-washing requires.
The number of days we've been social distancing.
The number of inches we should be separated from one another.
The number of cases that have been confirmed today
compared with the number of cases that were confirmed yesterday.
The number of cases we can expect tomorrow.
And, yes, I could go on and on!
I know that the numbers matter. But what dawns on me today is that each one of those numbers represents . . . a person.
I'm thinking that we would feel differently about this entire ordeal if we decided to use names instead of numbers. For example, what if case number 654,007 wasn't known by that number . . . but was, instead, known as Bob, the mail carrier? And what if case number 132,467 wasn't simply a number . . . but was, instead, dear Aunt Edna who was always so kind?
I realize that using the names would make the Johns Hopkins University website pretty unwieldy. I mean . . . how would it be possible to list all those names? Instead of a simple chart and fancy graphics, we would have to scroll through pages of names.
Which . . . wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. Maybe that would help us understand the devastation that is unfolding right before our eyes. Maybe that would help us grasp the staggering loss of life that is happening each day.
There are so many ways to devalue life these days. Listen to the way we talk about this pandemic.
Our state has had ONLY thirteen deaths.
Well, she did have underlying health issues after all.
Sure it's sad that he died, but he was pretty old.
It's time to get back to work, even if that causes a few more losses.
We can consider it a victory is we lose only one hundred thousand lives.
It's easy to think that way when all we see are numbers.
But it's not so easy to think that way when we're dealing with names.
Here is a suggestion: as you find yourself almost hypnotized by all the numbers, don't forget that every one of those numbers represents a real, loved-by-God, created-by-God, valuable, precious . . . human being.
Don't ever forget that each number represents . . . a person.
I have a dear friend in California who introduced me to the concept of "pre-grieving." At first it sounded like sheer silliness, but the more I listened to her explanation, the more sense it made. She said that when she knew -- or even suspected -- that something bad was about to happen, she would start grieving even before the bad thing would come. It was a way, she said, of preparing to feel the loss and it gave her a head-start on the experience of grief that would inevitably come.
On the one hand, there's a problem with that strategy: we cannot be sure what will happen in the future. Even when we feel certain about what is coming next, we simply cannot be sure. Especially given the way most of us worry, we then end up grieving about things that might never happen. In Philippians 4:6, the Apostle Paul encourages us not to be anxious about anything. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow (Matthew 6:34). So dwelling on what might happen is clearly a problem.
On the other hand, some of what causes our sadness these days is the uncertainty itself. We don't, of course, know exactly what might happen next, but we are quite sure that the world is changing right before our eyes. Even as we quote Philippians 4:6 to ourselves and to others, we live with a deep sense of loss. And what we're losing is the world we thought we knew, the world where we felt at least marginally "at home."
According to David Kessler, what we're actually dealing with is grief. It's quite a label, but David Kessler is said to be "the world's foremost expert on grief." In a recent conversation, he explained that what many people are feeling these days is "anticipatory grief."
This is how he explains the deep discomfort many of us are carrying around these days:
Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds
when we're uncertain. Usually it centers on death.
We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis
or when we have the normal thought that we'll lose a parent someday.
Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures.
There is a storm coming. There's something bad out there.
With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people.
Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can't see it.
This breaks our sense of safety.
We're feeling that loss of safety.
David Kessler says it's a good idea to name what it is that we're feeling; he's pretty sure that it's grief. Grief about things that haven't happened yet. Grief that is already anticipating what might happen. Grief over the uncertainty of the future. (Honestly, wouldn't this be easier to deal with if we knew how long the chaos would last?) According to David Kessler, giving a name to what we're feeling and honestly admitting that this is hard is a good start.
But people of faith can go a few steps beyond that. We have a foundation that provides us with a place to stand. The core truths that we have lived with for years are a trustworthy anchor. And even as we recite the promises to ourselves, we surely must find ways to share these same promises with those around us -- in many case, with people who are trying to deal with their fears without the certainty of these marvelous promises.
God is at work. God is present.
God is aware. God loves us.
God holds us in his strong arms.
God delights in us. God is with us.
God is able.
God will never leave us.
Those certainties do NOT mean that we will never deal with grief. We all know what it's like to live in this world; we know that there is both sunshine and rain.
But we also know that we are not nearly as alone as we might feel. God is with us.
And because that's true, we should try not to worry too much about things that haven't happened yet. As Jesus reminded us, "each day has enough trouble of its own" (Matthew 6:34). And as people who love and follow this Jesus, it is our high privilege to live today . . . with hope and trust and confidence . . . and with deep, deep compassion for other people.
So pre-grieve if you must.
But don't let your pre-grieving get in the way of living your life today.
"For where two or three come together in my name,
there I am with them."
The first thing we will want to note about this verse is that, if we give even a passing glance at the context, it is not about gathering for worship.
I know. I know. For generations, we have used the verse that way, quoted the verse to make that point, and reminded one another that Jesus is with us when even two or three of us get together for worship. I know that. I have used the verse that way too.
But if we take the time to look at Matthew 18, we will discover that Jesus is talking about dealing with a brother or sister who has gone astray. Jesus is giving his followers a method and an approach for dealing with disagreement and handling sin. And the essential teaching is that Jesus guides his people, especially when they together seek to follow his leadership.
(If we actually need a Bible verse that encourages us to get together for worship, we would be better off using Hebrews 10:25 which instructs us rather plainly "not to give up meeting together.")
If, however, we still feel the need to ignore the context of Matthew 18:20 and apply it to Christians gathering for worship, we are left with a troubling situation. Specifically this: if Jesus is with us when there are two or three (and presumably when there are a hundred or a thousand), does that mean he is not with us . . . when there is only one?
Yeah, it's hard to gather all alone. Yet, that is exactly where many of us find ourselves these days. And I would be hard pressed to claim that Jesus isn't with all of those "ones" who are pretty much all alone these days.
In fact, I am quite certain that Jesus is with the ones, just as he is with the twos and the threes!
There is so much pressure these days to get things going again -- including calls to "open" the church again. But that pressure is completely misplaced. You see, the church isn't closed. It never closed. The church has continued to be the church and do the work of the church through this entire season -- and that's always been true. In fact, the church hasn't skipped a beat. And if you are measuring the church by the absence of public worship services, you're looking in the wrong place. The church has been busy caring, loving, helping, giving, encouraging, praying, sharing hope, sharing Jesus -- in a word, the church has been busy being the church.
Even more, the church has been worshiping!
Maybe it looks a little different lately, but followers of Jesus don't worship only during public, weekly gatherings. Followers of Jesus worship daily, hour by hour, moment by moment. We worship when we are together, of course -- but we also worship when we are apart.
And Jesus is with us. Jesus is with us when there are fifty-six people in a multi-purpose room at the mall. Jesus is with us when there are thirteen people sitting around a table studying the Bible. Jesus is with us when there are six people gathered for prayer. Jesus is with us when there are two or three.
And get this: Jesus is with us . . . when there is only one.
Throughout history, God's people have learned that nothing can stop the worship of God. Not exile. Not the decrees of kings. Not the threat of persecution. Not death or life. Not angels or demons. Not the present or the future. No power of any kind can stop the worship of God. Nothing in all creation. Not even what we're facing today. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (See Romans 8:37-39.) And when we celebrate that love and embrace that love and share that love, we are worshiping God!
Even being unable to gather cannot keep us from worshiping God!
Of course, we love being together. But for the time being, we continue to choose to be apart because it is the kind and compassionate thing to do. We choose to be apart not because we are afraid, but because we care enough about one another to do what is best for one another. That's what the church always does.
Jesus is with us when we are together.
And Jesus is with us when we are apart.
In fact, Jesus is with us even when we are the only one.
It may be William Faulkner's best quote. It shows up in his Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." What Faulkner meant, I think, is that the past never completely goes away. Instead, the past powerfully shapes even today and tomorrow. The past doesn't simply disappear; in fact, it affects us so deeply that we can never completely escape it.
It also means that we would be wise to look to the past to make sense of today and tomorrow.
For some reason, I've been thinking a lot these days about the past, specifically about my past. I've been thinking about how important it is to remember that past.
When I was younger, this time of year was my favorite season for one reason: the beginning of baseball. I suspect that I'm thinking about that this year . . . because, at least right now, there is no baseball.
When I was a kid, I loved the St. Louis Cardinals. In those days televised baseball games were fairly rare, but it was possible to listen to every game on the radio. I especially loved it when the Cardinals played on the West Coast, because those games would start at 11:00 p.m. in the Eastern Time Zone. Living in Louisville, I would tune my radio to 50,000-watt KMOX, the Cardinal flagship station in St. Louis, climb into bed, and listen to the games. (My parents, of course, thought that I was sleeping.) But I would hang on Jack Buck's every word and thrill at the best game ever invented, played by the team I loved so dearly.
This week, I stumbled on a stack of old baseball score books. Often, when I was a kid, I would keep an official score book as I listened to a game. There's a system of keeping score in baseball that rivals Egyptian hieroglyphics -- symbols and marks for every single thing that happens in a game. And if you do a good job recording the details of a game in a score book, you can go back (even years later) and essentially reconstruct the game. Using that one piece of paper covered with all those strange markings, the game can become real right before your eyes.
So here I am in March of 2020 looking at the score card for a baseball game that was played 48 years ago. And if I use just a bit of imagination, I can relive the entire game.
The date was April 19, 1972. St. Louis was playing the Phillies in Philadelphia.
The pitchers that day were two future hall-of-famers: Steve Carlton and Bob Gibson.
To this day, I can envision the faces of some of the players:
Lou Brock, Larry Bowa, Ted Simmons, Matty Alou, Greg Luzinski, Tim McCarver. Unbelievably, the game was played in one hour, thirty-two minutes!
Even though Bob Gibson gave up only one run,
Steve Carlton pitched a complete-game, three-hit shutout
(facing only twenty-nine batters) and the Phillies won, 1-0.
Now, I don't remember that game. There is very little chance that I could remember a specific game that happened that long ago. Looking at my score book, though, every detail comes alive in my mind. And even though that game was played 48 years ago, it seems as real today as it was in 1972.
Without my score book I would have only a vague feeling about loving baseball as a kid. With the score book in hand, however, that vague feeling becomes real and concrete and alive. My score book tells me with certainty that the Cardinals and the Phillies really did play a game that day in 1972.
And that makes me realize not just that the past is important -- but that it is important to remember the past -- which is sometimes very hard to do. In fact, I'm not sure that we can do a good job remembering the past without some help.
Thankfully, we have plenty of help! When it comes to my relationship with God, I have some tools that help me remember the past.
For example, when I read my journals from the past, I can trace God's activity in my life over the years. My journals help me remember.
When I read books about God's people through history, I encounter the very real things that God has done in the lives of others. Those books help me remember.
When I open my Bible and see the names and places and events that fill the pages of Scripture, I am reminded of who God is and I am reminded of what God has done. The Bible helps me remember.
My memory isn't all that good these days. So I am grateful that I have some things to hold in my hands and look at . . . some things that will help me remember.
And that is so very important . . . because remembering the past helps me figure out how to live today.
I always thought it was important to be . . . essential.
Someone who is essential is crucial, needed, indispensable, valuable. If you are essential, the world cannot go on without you.
If, on the other hand, you are not essential. you realize pretty quickly that you're not of much value, that you're not really needed, that your worth is insignificant. If the non-essential people don't show up, the world will carry on just fine.
I'm thinking a lot about that word "essential" these days because it keeps showing up in the declarations of our government. Certain jobs, we're told, are essential -- and other jobs are not. And if that's true, it probably follows that certain people are essential . . . and others are not.
At least, that's what we are inclined to think.
I know a young woman who cleans medical clinics at night. It's her second job. And, honestly, that job doesn't look like much, but these days it is considered an essential job. (Interestingly, this woman's day job is essential as well -- so we're probably all in her debt! Imagine somebody with two essential jobs!)
After finishing work in the late afternoon each day, she puts on her janitor clothes and dons her mask and blue surgical gloves and she cleans medical offices. It's risky work these days. She worries about the germs and she worries about the noxious fumes of the heavy-duty disinfectants. Her friends tell her that she should quit that night job, but she can't help it; she needs to pay the bills. She doesn't get paid much to be a janitor. But she also knows that if she doesn't do a good job, people might get sick. And these days, that matters a lot.
This woman is almost invisible, but she is essential. And if she doesn't show up, we will all pay a price. Which is so important to remember in this world where we dismiss certain jobs (and, yes, certain people) as without value, as insignificant, as non-essential. These are the people we think we could do fine without.
But it seems to me that every job is essential. And it seems to me that every person is essential as well.
In 1977, a dear friend gave me a book. I found that book in a box downstairs this week. Written by Ann Kiemel, the book is entitled It's Incredible! It was 43 years ago that I first read the book -- and I still remember one passage. Ann Kiemel made the claim that "no one is unimportant" and she then illustrated her claim with these words:
All the people in the world
who have poured their BEST into every day,
and given years of earnest service in Christ's Name,
must be cherished by Him.
He always judges our hearts
more than the visible results.
The janitors and street sweepers and bricklayers
and gas station attendants and factory workers --
well, who ever decided that THEY aren't the great people of the world?
I first read those words in 1977, and they still stop me in my tracks.
Of all the people in the world, those who follow Jesus should know this well: we are all essential. Every single person is essential. And a key part of our ministry, as followers of Jesus, is to be certain that every person knows that. In fact, maybe that's a good message for us to share with people these days: that we cannot make it without them, that they are needed, that they are absolutely essential.
Of course, it's the rich and the famous and the powerful who get most of the attention. That's simply the way of the world, and there's probably no way to change that.
But what that janitor does every night to get things ready for my doctor visit the next morning . . . is just about the most important job in the world.
In fact, that janitor is downright essential. And I am thankful for her diligent and faithful labor.