I’m slowly starting to get genuinely excited about the fall semester.

It finally clicked for me on Sunday, when I started a fresh outline of the book I’m teaching in honors seminar, Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test. The book is twenty years old now, but I’m still catching fresh depth in it; parts of the center of the book, as the narrative turns from the history of standardized testing to college admissions and civil rights, are reading fresh and new, and I’m building an outline of the narrative that can help me guide students through the story and its implications for the world they live in. It had been brutally difficult for me to get started on any syllabus for the fall term at all, because of all that’s so uncertain; out of the clear blue sky, the honors seminar syllabus fell straight into place.

That got me out of the spiral trap of worrying about what shape the fall term might take In These Uncertain Times and got me in the position of envisioning what is possible, and what might be easiest to do for me while still being most accessible to everyone, regardless of the shape the term takes. A tentative game plan for the general chemistry lab was next; the chemistry lab was what we were most worried about for the fall, with the sheer number of freshmen coming through and the impossibility of distancing full labs. That bit of creativity is turning into a series of two week blocks, with one online lab and one in-person lab per block, half of the class roster showing up for the in-person lab one week, half of the roster showing up the next. A similar hyflex plan for the general chemistry lecture is in progress.

The biochemistry class is small enough on my campus that I can make a plan fall together like a snap. Physics is the only class I’m yet to start, but there are several tools I have in hand to make that plan work.

I’m slowly making peace in my own mind with the students turning up on campus. The standards for the campus reopening are put together very plainly. The expectations for students to maintain the most safe possible environment are quite clear, and I’m kind of impressed that the reopening guide hasn’t left much to chance.

I’m constructing a picture of a reconvened student body on campus, living and working together as a real oasis of safety in a genuinely dangerous time. We can do this. We can make this happen, together.

I’m slowly starting to get genuinely terrified about the fall semester.

Yesterday the county immediately to my west (Hamblen County, hardly the type of place you’d call a “big city”) reported 125 new cases of COVID-19, going from a cumulative count for the duration of the pandemic of 883 to a count of 1,008 in a single day. The pandemic is legitimately starting to spread from the urban centers of the state of Tennessee to the rural communities, and the rural spread into Northeast Tennessee is steady but unrelenting.

A baseball team that tried to get together and live as life was somewhat normal while playing games in front of no fans now has seventeen players associated with it testing positive for COVID-19, in a warning sign to all of us about trying to live life as somewhat normal.

The undue pressure has been with us for some time, and it only gets more and more intense as one population wants to resume normalcy with the circumstances damned and another population is readying themselves to act against the resumption of normalcy.

It’s impossible to envision reopening any place where large number of people gather as one, let alone a college campus.

I just imagine all the different times I’ve lived through illness spreading around campus and the sinking feeling when you know it’s just a matter of time before you get sick too. It’s one thing to have that feeling for a bug that will stick with you for a couple of days and you just move on from. It’s quite another to have that feeling about a novel virus that is known to sometimes lead all the way to death, and even in the likely event that you live through it might have all kinds of long-term effects that we don’t understand. There’s so much we just don’t know, and so many risks we might take on by taking what used to be the very ordinary step of just showing up.

I didn’t get into education to take my life into my hands by just showing up.

And yet the drumbeat to reopen continues to go on, no matter how many people attempt to stand athwart the coming history, yelling “STOP”. [1]

The preparation for a new semester is supposed to be a time of optimism, and in many ways, the creative work of preparing for a new semester doesn’t work without that optimism. That optimism is what causes me to envision what the day-to-day life of a functioning campus might look like, even in this moment that’s so uncertain.

The reality that makes this moment so uncertain isn’t given over to optimism. Fearing the worst isn’t irrational. The real problems that have made the United States such a fertile breeding ground for this pandemic are reasons for real pessimism, for genuine motivation to shut down each and every enterprise that gathers people together until the spread of this virus is actually arrested.

Moving forward with a functional life in 2020 in the United States is a daily collision of optimism and pessimism, of creating a vision for a safe place and knowing that real behaviors of real people make that vision impossible, of moving forward with preparations and plans knowing that events we can’t control might shred those preparations and plans at their first instant of meeting reality.

We can’t live with being paralyzed. But looking reality in the face is paralyzing.

And here I am, four months on from this reality dawning, and then I didn’t know what the world would look like the following week, and now I still don’t know what the world will look like next week.

And all the rage in the world can’t change the reality.

[1] I’m well aware of who I just paraphrased, and the only amusement I take from writing this at all is the knowledge of how many thinking people of all stripes are going to be annoyed by the reference.

Cover photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash.

Suffering in the midst of abundance

I gave up using my blogspace as an avenue of ministry a long time ago. Since I left the unit of the Georgia Baptist Convention that used to provide my salary, I’d wager that the majority of the people who come across this space aren’t evangelical Christians and don’t engage in the rituals that I stumble through on a semi-regular basis.

But I still do stumble through those rituals, and the onset of this pandemic chased me back to church. And because the church building I have attended most frequently in Greeneville was closed at the start of the pandemic, I used that as an excuse to re-engage with my graduate school church, Vineyard Columbus.

I’m really grateful for Rich Nathan’s consistency in ministry to that church, and this isn’t the first time that I’ve checked in on a Vineyard Columbus sermon series to see where my old church is at. And as I check in on them in this season, I’m excited to see where the new leadership at Vineyard Columbus is taking the church.

But in the time when the reality and the uncertainty of the pandemic was starting to take hold, I found myself needing that consistency of teaching again. And it was while doing yard work the Sunday after Easter and listening to an Easter message a week late that I started to get what I needed.

That Easter message, and the series which followed it, were expertly prepared and expertly delivered, so I hope my questioning doesn’t make you think that these folk didn’t think of a whole lot of things. But the start of the Easter message was very jarring to me:

Y’know, I normally begin Easter services by saying “Happy Easter”, and I was out walking my dog the other day and I could almost read his thoughts. He looked up at me and he was thinking to himself, “now, I know this coronavirus thing has been really hard on your species, but I gotta tell you, as a dog, this has been like a gift.” I mean, he gets three long walks a day, he doesn’t have to be in his cage, he has companionship all day long. Dogs in America are doing amazingly well. 

But for the rest of us, this has been a really hard Easter. Billions of folks around the world are sheltering in place; they are locked down in their homes and apartments. Millions of us in the United States have lost our jobs. We did a funeral here at Vineyard Columbus this past week and we weren’t able to invite the deceased’s friends and family; only a handful of the closest family was there. Weddings have been postponed. School graduations have been postponed; kids who are graduating from high school and from college are missing the last part of their senior years. Things that folks have invested in for a really long time, school plays and orchestra concerts and art exhibits and proms; all of those things have been postponed or eliminated.

And, of course, on top of all of this is fear and anxiety about being sick, about being hospitalized. We’re concerned not only for ourselves, but for loved ones who may be sick or who may be immunocompromised. This has been a really hard year.

Now, this was the start of a message that appealed to the study of 1 Peter for a new generation of Christians. Peter, after all, wrote to people who were undergoing persecution and suffering in the midst of practicing their faith, and that’s a posture that American Christians aren’t used to.

But the presentation of Christians in the midst of suffering that Rich Nathan refers to in his opening remarks is not neat and tidy. The first protagonist, after all, is a dog. And the dog is living really well. Not that I’m unfamiliar with this; our household has four cats, and at one point or another all four cats have either bounded around me gleefully or rested on my legs over the course of this season.

It takes money to take care of these cats. They don’t take care of themselves real well, much as they might want you to believe otherwise.

And this is a large part of the reality of our existence: we have the resources to deal. If we can care for dogs and cats, we can certainly care for our own food and shelter. So many of us who are able to read thoughts like these on the internet, even in the midst of a very stressful time, still know where our next meal is coming from, how the bills are going to get paid next month. Not everybody does, but many of us do.

I honestly wonder if there isn’t a population of us who are simply protesting too much about all the trouble that life in the time of COVID-19 is bringing to our doorstep. We can do simple things and keep the pandemic largely at bay. We can stay home. We can be focused when we leave our house, and wear a mask as we travel around. We can plan our days a little more carefully and reach out to our friends, family and loved ones a little more intentionally.

Are we suffering, or are we inconvenienced? Is it really possible for so many of us to suffer in a time when we have been provided with so many resources?

Here’s the flip side:

It’s a pandemic. It’s a pandemic where a virus with a unique capability of remaining dormant and passing from person to person almost undetected is being spread. The magnitude of anxiety that simple reality brings forth in the world is doing damage that we’re not even close to understanding.

We’re living through a reality that isn’t a respecter of individual people, their resources, or even necessarily their privilege. This virus has disproportionately impacted people of color and people of low socioeconomic standing, but it doesn’t leave any population immune. All of us are dealing with the uncertainty and anxiety that results from this.

If that was the only circumstance we were dealing with, that would be one thing and we could focus on managing our anxiety while we hunker down and await recovery. But hiding out is the one thing that our society in particular is completely resistant to. We have to reopen.

The pressure to resume life as it once was, the pressure to have the most robust economy we can while the uncertainty of a pandemic places a very different pressure on our day-to-day lives, is simply too much. It is the very real cost of all of this abundance we find around us in America, the ill-gotten gains of a society that insists on everything being done right now, without a spare moment to rest and recover and deal with the reality that These Times Are Not Normal.

Is it possible to have suffering in the midst of abundance? Absolutely. There are so many of us all around who are feeling the ill effects of the repeated insistence that we can have the same world we once had if we just learn to live with the pandemic, as if the pandemic was a gentle house guest who just took up a small measure of room instead of a killer who chooses his victims cruelly – one here, two there, a small number then, a mammoth number now.

Dealing with the killer in our midst is bad enough. Dealing with voices that insist that the killer is simply part of our reality now, and there is nothing we can do about it, and we simply must resume the busyness that characterized our lives before? That’s damage on top of damage. That’s insult added to injury, with a side of cruelty.

This is the country we inhabit in July 2020, those of us who live in the United States. We have always had so much that we possess, and we still have opulence that puts us to shame. But that opulence lives side-by-side with the ever-encroaching virus, overturning lives one at a time. And both of those live with a culture that insists on selling us the same goods and services as it did in the time before, and insists on us participating in the selling of those goods, as if the pandemic is the mildest of inconveniences.

If you’re overcome with depression or anxiety, you’re not alone. If you don’t think you’ve overcome with depression or anxiety, you really need to ask if you’re lying to yourself.

So we go back to 1 Peter, and I start with chapter 1, verse 13:

Therefore, get your minds ready for action by being fully sober, and set your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed. Like obedient children, do not comply with the evil urges you used to follow in your ignorance, but, like the Holy One who called you, become holy yourselves in all of your conduct, for it is written, “You shall be holy, because I am holy.” And if you address as Father the one who impartially judges according to each one’s work, live out the time of your temporary residence here in reverence. You know that from your empty way of life inherited from your ancestors you were ransomed—not by perishable things like silver or gold, but by precious blood like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb, namely Christ. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was manifested in these last times for your sake. Through him you now trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

I am really feeling that reference to an “empty way of life inherited from your ancestors” lately. It sounds very similar to this suffering in the midst of abundance that we experience right now.

Like I said at the onset, I’ve given up on this space as a source of ministry. The text itself points in the direction where I’d go if I was using this time to preach – the silver and gold will perish, the blood of Christ provides life forever.

It seems pretty worthwhile to spend some time dwelling in “silver and gold will perish”, though. One of the great themes of Biblical literature is the capacity of humans to pretend like the rewards of worldly life have any capacity to last for an extended period of time, and the humility that comes when we realize that the abundance we live in is destined to end.

Quite possibly the single most frustrating thing about the consistent pressure to resume our economic duties in this most capitalist of societies is this reality. Our lives are stuck in the rut that Tony Campolo has spent a lifetime preaching about, the pursuit of more stuff that we don’t need to sustain our political system.

There is value to be found elsewhere. You might even argue that all of the teaching against evil urges is pointed towards setting aside the relentless pursuit of economic benefit in the name of something that’s more meaningful, something that will last the entirety of our lives…and even beyond.

The hope for an end to suffering is a false hope, even with all the resources we live among. Those resources unfailingly are sitting in a bank account for those who can least benefit from them and remain elusive for those who could most benefit. But the least we can do in this time is recognize where our hope won’t be fulfilled, and start to seek out what it might mean to build a life for ourselves and our communities where we can show what hope looks like, instead of snuffing hope out.

Cover photo by Thomas de LUZE on Unsplash.