A Shake Test

The Covid-19 Chronicles : Reflections in a Pandemic, Part 2

I remember my 8th grade art teacher, whose classes were not so much art as they were craft. Lots of styrofoam, tooth picks, paper mache, white glue, and tempera paint. When evaluating our work, she would always pick it up and give it a firm shake to see how well it was constructed. “If it’s going to last, it has to be made well,” she’d say.

We are undergoing a shake test on a global scale with the CoV-2 crisis. Everything is being shaken – our selves, our homes, our society, our congregations. Our values, beliefs, and institutions are being tested to the very core.

I live in earthquake country where the earth moves underfoot on a fairly regular basis. My house is sixty-four years old and has been shaken many times by tremors small and great. It has proven to be well built. Yes, there are cracks in the stucco and the plaster walls revealing some of the weak spots, but overall the house has stood up well.

The disruption of our lives by epidemic and quarantine will test the strength of our foundations. How strong and stable are they, and how well have we built on them? Our strengths, weaknesses, and insecurities will be revealed to us. This will be uncomfortable, painful even, but it can be a time of tremendous growth and change. Think of this as a reset of life, much the way we push the Reset button on our electronics when they cease to work properly. Our lives are being reset, and what they will be after the reset depends on how we respond to our present circumstances.

Our homes will be tested. Our houses will be fine, as CoV-2 doesn’t affect plumbing, electrical, or framing. It affects the lungs, and its threat affects relationships as we are forced to live in closer proximity than we were accustomed. Marriages will feel the strain, as husbands and wives learn to not only live but work together, “for better and for worse.” For some, especially in urban and suburban areas, this may come as something of a shock. Farm families and those with family businesses are more used to this, but many of us aren’t. Parents will get to know their children better in having them home alone, and they will come to a new respect for their teachers, as well as an admiration for those homeschool moms and dads. I hope we will come to see these primary relationships of husband and wife, father and mother, son and daughter as central rather than peripheral to our lives.

I fear for those who cannot truly “shelter at home,” those who live in abusive and dangerous situations, those whose households are afflicted by addiction. I am concerned for those who are already isolated before we all went into isolation – those who live alone like my 91-year old Mom, those who are estranged from family, or our single people. This is an especially hard moment for single parents who may have to work while preschools and afterschool programs are shut. We may not be able to move around and gather as much as we’d like, but we can go outside in our own neighborhoods and check in with those who are close to us.

Our communities will be tested. We do not live in autonomous isolation, though some may pretend to do so. We need one another more than we realize. Each has a vocation to do – grocer, doctor, street sweeper, teacher, butcher, baker, candlestick maker. We serve one another within our callings in the world. This is becoming more apparent than ever. My hope is that we will come to a renewed sense of living in community where we have more in common than simply living in the same neighborhood. And perhaps we can value those unsung heroes in our community as much as we idolize our sports heroes and celebrities.

Our congregations will be tested. Our churches are not simply auditoriums where people gather for worship and inspiration. The church is a priesthood of believers, the body of Christ to be Christ for our neighbors and to be the spiritual breath of our neighborhoods and communities. I’m afraid we’ve spent a bit too much time and energy worrying about gathering together than thinking about how we can be of service in this time when we are scattered. Each of us baptized believers is a little Christ in our local neighborhood, grains of salt scattered on the earth, a beacon of light set on a hill, priests who consecrate home and work with the Word of God and prayer.

A lot of us are making do with the electronic gadgets at our disposal. Online is the new normal. Some try to have worship virtually. I just finished a Zoom devotion with some of our AfterSchool kids. As one kid was overheard to say in an unmuted moment, “This is dumb.” I love the honesty of kids. It’s definitely a distant second cousin to the gathered congregation of the saints. As it should be. The Body of Christ, the church, is not an abstraction any more than Jesus Christ is an abstraction. The Body of Christ longs to be gathered by the Spirit who calls and gathers us. Spiritually, we are all united in Christ as one Body, but we are physical creatures. Physical distancing is not natural for the Body of Christ. We are drawn together in Christ like metal filings to a magnet.

The test is not how long we can keep our doors open before the neighbors or the police shut us down, but how to be the Body of Christ scattered in place. We are in the season of Lent, a time of fasting and disciplined devotion in preparation for Easter. This has now become a true Lenten fast fpr us, a fast of gathering and from the Feast, the Lord’s Supper. This is the fast that God gives us. We are learning to live by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God, to hear the Scriptures in our homes, to put our eyes in our ears and “give ear” (I love that phrase!) to the Word of the Lord. Pretty church buildings are nice, but Christians have worshipped in living rooms and the catacombs long before they could build impressive churches.

My hope is that we will regain that great doctrine that once turned the world upside down in the Reformation, that the church is not an institution or a building but a royal priesthood that gathers around Christ to worship and scatters in Christ to serve and bless. I am confident that when we gather again, we will not be the same, and we will not see things in the same way. And it will be for our good.

Our society will be tested, as will our framework of government, our leaders in office, the news media, our corporations and businesses, and all our societal institutions. These will all be shaken, not only by the present epidemic but by the economic, political, and societal aftershocks to follow.

In my 8th grade art class, not all projects survived the shake test; some were damaged, some fell to pieces. Some of our leaders will show themselves lacking the intellectual or moral ability to lead and guide; others will rise to the occasion in ways that may surprise us. The integrity of our news media and press will be tested for their objectivity and truthfulness. We will learn that our confidence in government may have been misplaced. Hopefully, our divisions will diminish and our partisan pettiness will fade in the light of a new day. Some of our institutional structures may topple and fall. Others will survive, perhaps cracked a bit but still standing. Corporations and businesses will be challenged not only to be profitable but to be ethical and moral, to work not only for the interests of investors but for the well-being of their employees and community. One thing is certain – it will no longer be business as usual.

This is either the end of the world, in which case Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! Or it is the end of the world as we know it, in which case we need to learn what we can from this shake test to emerge from it stronger and wiser as individuals, families, congregations, and communities. Structures that are rigid tend not to do well when the shaking begins. Times such as this call us to be nimble, flexible, creative, and responsive. This may mean setting aside the ordinary for the exceptional, the familiar for the unfamiliar, our cherished notions for other perspectives. This applies to government and society, to home and workplace, and to our congregations as well as to each of us.

Anchored to Christ in faith, we are rock solid at the foundation even when the whole earth trembles.

Jesus said, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” – Matthew 7:24-27


©2020 William M. Cwirla