By Maggie Mallette
Director of Family Ministries
Yesterday late, I went to a friend’s apartment to drop off a key in case of the unlikely event that my roommate and I both end up deciding to leave town and we need someone to take care of the cat. I sat in my car and she stood outside of my driver-side window, six feet away. We talked for a little while about how we are feeling through all of the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic; she is one of a handful of people I’ve seen in person (other than my roommate) in the past two and a half weeks.
That’s been hard! At St. John’s we are a family-focused, relational people, and our community has been a bulwark against those societal, natural, and larger-than-ourselves catastrophes that take place both within and outside of our church family. I’m new-ish here, but even for me, to have the physical meeting place and its physical meetings taken away has been difficult. We have found new ways to see each other, have been intentional about checking in on one another, and have continued our kingdom work, certainly. Even still, I miss the children, youth, and families at St. John’s. Zoom meetings have, undoubtedly, brightened my spirits in these unfamiliar times, but they are no replacement for those good things we share when we gather in person.
I’m sure you understand when I say that to see this friend in her apartment’s parking lot was a treat. Someone new with whom I could commiserate; someone who is also several states away from her family. And in person. It was a luxury. We spoke openly about how we are feeling. We’re both just—sick of it. That was the best we could do for emotions. But then we started to discuss how the thing of coronavirus feels.
“My mom was saying that Coronavirus feels like a perpetual Thursday. You’ve worked hard through the entire week, and you know the weekend is almost there, but it’s not there yet. But constant.”
“It kind of feels like in the summer when you’re gearing up for the next big event, but there’s nothing going on that week, so you don’t know if you should be twiddling your thumbs for the present or doing work that isn’t yet necessary to prep for the next big thing.” (The friend is also a youth leader.)
“It feels like senior year, finishing work on your thesis, or other classes you don’t want to be in. Like—I’ll take the grade I deserve; I just want to be done with it.”
Before dropping off the key, I’d been on the phone with my dad and I asked him if this event is like anything through which he’d lived. He told me that in some ways it was reminiscent of the aftermath of 9/11, but not quite the same. He said that Ebola was scary, and people talked about it, but it wasn’t quite like this. While both of these happened in my lifetime, I’m too young to remember much of 9/11, and I was too much a high school junior to understand Ebola outside of the context of my personal self.
On the way home from the key drop-off, I thought about these conversations a little more. The only words I have for what we’re handling right now are comparisons, similes. Coronavirus is like this; self-isolation is like that. Some of you parents may be teaching on similes and metaphors right now. This whole thing is too big to describe with concrete terms, too unknown, too unknowable. I have taken in more data in the past two and a half weeks than I have in the entire rest of my life—these statistics do not make the beast of coronavirus feel more knowable to me. I know that it is bad, simply put. I know that it has been hugely disruptive, and for many thousands of other people, it has been much more disruptive than it has been for me. I don’t have young children who have been suddenly taken out of school; my job can be performed from home, for the most part; and none of my loved ones have gotten sick. I am one of the lucky ones. Beyond these facts, though, coronavirus as an event is too big for me to comprehend. It sometimes startles me when I remember.
And here we are, bearing down on Holy Week. That is an event that is, also, often too big for me to comprehend. Tonight, I watched a video on Zoom with our children—an eleven minute Holy Week story, from Palm Sunday through crucifixion. We paused before Easter to save something for next week’s Wednesday night. Holy Week tells the story of a man, fully divine and fully human, giving his life for ours. He enters Jerusalem triumphantly to celebrate the Passover, has dinner and prays with his friends, is betrayed, and is crucified on a cross. When the story is laid out that way, it’s linear and tidy. But we have learned our entire Christian lives that the story is neither linear nor tidy, and much of it is too big for us to know or to comprehend. To top it all off, the man who has laid down his life for our sins has spoken to us in similes, allegories, and parables during his entire preaching life.
The kindergarteners, first graders, and second graders at St. John’s have been learning about parables in Sunday School this semester; they were about halfway through a group of twelve parables before we were interrupted by this pandemic. Much of what Jesus teaches us about the Kingdom of Heaven, his father in heaven, and our moral duties comes from similes and metaphors. The children of St. John’s have memorized the book Found, which is a children’s book based on Psalm 23; we read it at Children’s Chapel every Sunday. They can tell you from memory that “God is my shepherd. And I am his little lamb.” As young as three years old, they know that this Psalm is referring to a love bigger than we can understand, so we have been given this imagery to help us along. This past Thursday, when I read “Even when I walk through the dark, scary, lonely places, I won’t be afraid. Because my shepherd knows where I am,” to my camera, I shivered a little bit. The place we find ourselves now, largely, can be dark, scary, and lonely. We are without our friends and neighbors—lonely. We are distancing to keep ourselves and our loved ones well—scary. These combined—often dark.
I needed a children’s version of Psalm 23—which is already put in terms that were meant to be easier for me to understand—to remind me that “my Shepherd knows where I am. He is here with me. He keeps me safe. He rescues me. He makes me strong and brave.” I needed this metaphor to remind me that the impossible big-ness of the pandemic we are facing today is nothing compared to the big-ness of a God who loves us, shepherds us, redeems us, and has a plan for us.
As we enter Holy Week in the next few days, I invite you to embrace the mystery and the metaphor with me. It is not easy for me to lack exact, succinct words for a situation. I’d like to be able to control the scope of what we are seeing one another through, to be able to just take a good look at it, end to end. I know that that is impossible. But we can take comfort in knowing that it would also be impossible to look at our God end to end. We cannot make total sense of His story, but we can join in the mystery and the wonder. We can join with the women we will soon encounter at the tomb, in their confusion, mystery, and wonder. We can work with one another to understand that this is big, too big, but that, as the children of St. John’s will tell you,
“Wherever I go I know…
God’s Never Stopping
Never Giving Up
Always and Forever Love
will go, too!”