A Summer Devotion for Young Harris College Students
A Russian train was stuck in the forest on a snowy night. All the famous leaders of the twentieth century on board. Lenin went forward to the cabin to re-educate the driver, but the train wouldn’t budge. Stalin went forward and shot the driver. Still, no one could move the train forward. Finally, Brezhnev went through the cabin closing all the curtains while telling the passengers the train was moving. 1
It’s a good parable to describe how we are dealing with the COVID19 pandemic in The United States.
Some of us are wearing masks, as we should, and trying to evangelize the country with how to keep the virus at bay. Others think we can beat the virus with brute force. “Go to work,” they say. “Open up schools. That’s the way the world works.” Nevermind, that’s actually only the way we’ve decided the world should work. My wife, Danielle, heard a little boy in the grocery say, “I’m going to shoot that virus with my gun!” American catechesis. There’s no enemy we can’t defeat. Others again resort to denial, naming this a conspiracy.
What I’ve noticed is that there are three drastically different responses to pandemic on the train, but what we all share in common (imagine that) is the frustration that the train isn’t moving as it should. COVID19 is forcing us to acknowledge our lack of control of a virus and one another. Call it a layover worse than anything that American Airlines could pull off.
Here’s the question for Young Harris: Is coming back to school a sign that the pandemic is ending? Or is it a curtain pulled over our eyes? Just because we invite you back on to campus doesn’t mean the train has started moving again. Don’t get me wrong—I want students back on campus. I long for students to fill the RCC, to worship together, break bread together, to be ten percent more immature. I long to spend less than six hours a day in my office. I’ve spent one hundred dollars on new artwork for my office and I can only afford to redecorate so many times. And by so many times, I really mean one more time.
Most of all, I long for the train to start moving again. Let’s get back to normal.
Curious phrase, back to normal. I’ve heard it said that every organization has a ‘back to Egypt committee.’ It refers to the Jews escape from slavery in Egypt and into the wilderness before Canaan. Egypt: the good days with the five star dining and easy labor. Israelites! You were enslaved. But at least there was a sense normalcy. This is all about fear of change, isn’t it? Well, maybe not change. I like the way that Heiftetz puts it better: “We don’t fear change, we fear loss.” I can think of plenty of changes I’d welcome with open arms— children who sleep in their own beds, for instance. It’s the changes that require loss that give me pause. I fear the day those kids don’t want to hold my hand.
Normal is never as good as you remember. Spoiler: the cafeteria is still the same cafeteria, which (‘unpopular opinion’) I don’t mind. Like the manna in the wilderness, it’s not world class, but there’s always enough. I think back on my time in school and seminary fondly. It was a blast. I never studied church history for ten hours at a Starbucks. And I never had a panic attack before delivering a sermon in front of some of the world’s best theologians. Nostalgia is seductive; it tells you what you want to hear and rarely tells the full truth.
Pre-COVID was hard. Don’t be fooled. And COVID has taught us about all the specific ways it was hard. We’ve been forced to acknowledge the truth about ourselves and our lives together. We’re human, which means we’re creatures. And creatures catch diseases from other creatures. We’ve come to gain the clarity that the economy was made for humans, not humans for the economy. Turns out that “unskilled laborers” are essential laborers and they should be paid what they’re worth. We’ve outsourced all of our social welfare to the education system. And so we feel forced to open schools, even during the most nebulous times, to care for one another. We’re coming to finally understand how our structures and systems cater to an ideology of whiteness.
Here’s one thing I hope Christians have learned: America isn’t your savior. It has failed you and it will fail you again. Shocking for White people to hear. Luckily, we follow Jesus. Not the state.
This is why so many of us are asking why we’re so concerned about getting the same train started? Isn’t it possible to readjust the speed, the track, the destination? We can tinker with the GPS, or change the voice on the system to Victor, the French sommelier. Like the viral instagram post says, “In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.” Or as Bonhoeffer says, “if you board the wrong train, there is no use in running down the corridor in the opposite direction.”
But that’s beside the point. The real problem, and I take this from Sam Wells, is the word ‘back.’ You can never go back to anything. Our first (second—third—fourth) naivetes about the way the world works have been shattered. Our eyes have been opened.
This isn’t altogether worth lamenting.
The Bible is never too interested in going back to normal. 2 It’s always interested in envisioning a new normal. Thank God. I think of someone like Isaiah writing in exile, whisked away from everything normal. For fifty years, Israel said, “I want to go home.” I miss the way life used to be. But they didn’t stop there, right, they went one step further and dared to utter even more hopeful words, 'I want to go home—to a different kind of home.”
Our life together moves through disorientation, which paves the way for reorientation. What is cutback is used to provide the the life-force for new growth and change. A shoot will come up from the stump. The future that was cut off prematurely will be re-imagined. A new tree will grow that will provide shade for all of God’s creatures, with branches for all of the birds to perch. I want home to be different. More just, equitable, merciful.
We can start making adjustments to our life together—questioning our idolatry of the market, considering where our bodies will take up space on campus and who will take up space alongside of us. How can we abide by the necessary requirements to keep our community safe? Will our administration follow through on promises on diversity and equity? Ask yourself the question why you’re even attending college and who do you want to become when it’s over? And then, ask yourself the question again.
I’ll close with this: Is it a mistake to reopen? I don’t know. That’s the question we’re all asking. We have some reason to believe that we can do this safely, but it also depends on your response when you get here. Some say we could nip this thing significantly if we just wear masks for four weeks. You’re going to have to believe someone about COVID19. I choose to believe the ones who err on the side of love and humility. It also doesn't hurt to believe the ones who have degrees.
What I do know is this: eventually, the train will start moving again. When it does, I pray that we’ve not just changed the track or the speed. I pray that we’ve found ourselves on a different train altogether—one that’s moving toward a completely different city.
Don’t go back to normal. Go forward to the kingdom of God.
Oh yeah, one more thing: wear a mask.