As news about the COVID-19 virus grew ever more ominous, I went out for my customary walk the other day. As I began my walk, a song being played on a neighbor’s device caught my attention. It was a song by the rock group, Kansas, one with which I was quite familiar. In the context of the virus, and the uncertainty about its continued spread and how to treat it, the lyrics sent a pungent reminder:
“Now, don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away
And all your money won’t another minute buy
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind.”
Having heard those words, and more, I experienced the phenomenon of hearing them over and over again as I continued my stroll. It was as if my mind was on a constantly repeating loop. It was not the message I wanted as I walked to clear my mind, but it was a useful message: Our life is transient. We cannot predict what our future will be with absolute certainty. Earlier in the day, I had read a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “God’s Acre.” The phrase that forms the title is an idiom for a cemetery. The last three stanzas of the poem say,
“Into its furrows shall we all be cast,
In the sure faith, that we shall rise again
At the great harvest, when the archangel’s blast
Shall winnow, like a fan, the chaff and grain.
Then shall the good stand in immortal bloom,
In the fair gardens of that second birth;
And each bright blossom mingle its perfume
With that of flowers, which never bloomed on earth.
With thy rude ploughshare, Death, turn up the sod,
And spread the furrow for the seed we sow;
This is the field and Acre of our God,
This is the place where human harvests grow!”
Although, like the song by Kansas, the poem has a somber tinge, Longfellow strikes a different theme: When we die, we live again. This experience is not our end. When we die, we then will reap the fruit of the choices we have made. Longfellow perceives a brighter future where the beauty of wise decisions and faithful living shines more brightly and smells much better.
Much remains unknown in our current circumstances. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last, how many will be infected (or right now, how many are infected), how many will die, or how profoundly it will change our world. We know that humanity has suffered through similar, arguably much worse, scourges and many survived. The oldest among us remember rationing during World War 2. They and my own generation remember widespread outbreaks of measles, mumps, and the initial outbreak of HIV. Influenza remains a threat, but vaccines and other treatments have mitigated its impact even though many still die from it. So far, we have no vaccine nor effective treatment for this new virus. That is why we try enhanced hygiene and increase social distancing to try to contain it.
While I was hearing the song and contemplating the poem, I also was meditating on words I had just read from Jeremiah 3. God calls to his people three times through the prophet in that chapter to renounce unfaithfulness and to restore themselves to a healthy relationship with God. Earlier in the chapter, God had reminded them,
“Have you not just called to me: ‘My Father, my friend from my youth, will you always be angry? Will your wrath continue forever?’ This is how you talk, but you do all the evil you can” (Jeremiah 3:4-5).
God then begins the call to return. He calls them away from loyalties and behaviors that distract: Even the Ark of the Covenant had become an idol of sorts. He calls them to more accurate vision of their relationship with him and describes how they will have “shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding” (verses 15). As we experience the spread of this current virus, we need leaders who speak truth to us and who understand both our plight and the potential consequences of their own actions. We too need shepherds who will act with integrity and with faithfulness. We and they need to grow more conscious of our values, our ethical decisions, and the focus of our faith. God called his people to remember that they were in a spiritual sense married to him. He was not a pawn to be manipulated or abused, but their provider and sustainer.
In Jeremiah, the people respond with a prayer, “Yes, we will come to you, for you are the LORD our God” (Jeremiah 3:22b). As we contemplate our dilemma during this pandemic, may we respond in faith, accurately evaluating our relationship with God and our responsibilities to our God as well as to the rest of humanity. We’re tempted to live in denial; some initially tried to pass off the virus as a hoax perpetrated by a political party and national leaders from multiple countries have attempted to blame other nations for a disease. We don’t want to give up our habitual lifestyle. We seize hold of potential good news – supposedly my blood type renders me less susceptible, but back away from negatives – my age and other factors put me more at risk.
As we face uncertain futures, let us do so together with faith in a loving, just Creator God who calls us to speak truth and to love one another. Let us put aside our own idols and trust in God, whatever tomorrow may bring. We are not just dust in the wind, although life is like a mist or vapor (James 4:14). Let us live with hope and with love as we pray during the pandemic.
• Bible quotations are from the New International Version 2011.
O God, our Creator, Sustainer, and Lord, We have so much confidence in our own ingenuity and strength. When something like the COVID-19 virus catches us unaware and unprepared, we gasp and panic follows. Breath calm into our hearts. May we regain healthy perspective. May we act with integrity and with loving regard for the needs of others around us. This virus challenges us because responding to it disrupts our expectations of how we will order our lives. We fear that we may be overestimating its danger and that we may under estimate its lethality. These contradicting fears cloud our judgment and fuel our cynicism. Increase our faith. Restore us to yourself. May we know more fully a sense of your love and protection. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.