“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” Well, where do I begin?! I heard these words from Psalm 42 during our church’s worship service this morning, which I watched via Facebook Live just like the rest of the congregation. Our new pastor, the one we just installed last Sunday, came together with the rest of the church staff and made the difficult decision to cancel any activities at the church until further notice. Anything that brings groups of people physically together right now, especially when a lot of those people are in high risk categories, is anathema. Every day the numbers of those infected by the novel coronavirus and those who have died keep rising. So yes, there are plenty of reasons our souls might be disquieted within us in these strange days.
We just don’t know what’s going to happen next, do we? I mean, sure, we never really know what’s going to happen next, but usually there are some reasonable expectations in which we can put our faith. “My church will have services this Sunday,” is almost always a safe assumption around here.
“My office will be open tomorrow.”
“Our kids will have school this week.”
“There will be plenty of college basketball to watch in March.”
“The grocery store will have everything I need on the shelves.”
All of these seemed like safe assumptions just a week or two ago. And admittedly, when I was planning our family spring break trip six months ago, I didn’t stop for even a second to wonder, “But what if Disney World is closed due to a global pandemic?” Yet here we are. Many of the safe assumptions around which we build our daily lives have gone out the window. And if we can’t make safe assumptions about those mundane things, then is anything safe??
A patient* in the hospital where I work told me how anxious he was as he watched the news. “If people around here have that coronavirus they’ll probably come to this hospital, won’t they?” he asked. With his weakened immune system, he worried about potentially being in the same building as people with COVID-19, and he worried about his elderly mother at home. “I’m not there to go get her groceries and her medications for her. What if she goes out to get them herself and she catches it? At her age, I worry it would just finish her off. I’m anxious about a lot of things, Chaplain. It makes me even ashamed to go to God in prayer because I’ve got so many worries. I guess I’m losing my faith.”
My heart went out to him, and I could certainly relate to what he was saying, as someone who has long suffered from anxiety and depression. I didn’t tell him about my prayers in the last few days. They have been filled with the kinds of angry, demanding questions that only true, gut-level fear brings out of us, and the hurtful things that we end up saying only to those closest to us, those we love most. When the kids say such things to me, though my initial human reaction might be annoyance or defensiveness, I remind myself that this means they truly trust me. They believe I am someone to whom it is safe to reveal the most dangerous and most vulnerable side of themselves. They believe that when they feel like their world is falling apart, they can let out all the ugliness that fear produces inside them, and I will still love them. So do I think, if you are anxious and scared because of all that’s happening right now, that God is ashamed of you, or that you are losing your faith? No, dear reader, I do not.
During that online worship service this morning, my friend Marjorie, our youth minister, read Psalm 42 in its entirety, and I’m so glad it wasn’t cut short. The question in verse 5 is repeated in verse 11: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” And the solution offered is the same both times as well: “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” There is a lot of such repetition in the Bible, and I don’t think it was because the writers got lazy. I think it’s because they knew, and God knew, that there are just some things we humans need to hear over and over. You may have heard that one of those often-repeated phrases in the Bible is, “Fear not,” or, depending on your translation, “Do not be afraid.” Dozens of times between Genesis and Revelation, the words come to God’s people from God and God’s messengers. Why? I believe it’s because God knows us so well, and knows that it won’t take long after we hear the words for us to look around and start succumbing to fear again, sinking into the storm-tossed waves like Peter as he tried to walk on the water to Jesus. And instead of condemning our fear, God patiently says it again.
Yes, there are many reasons to be anxious and afraid right now. But there are also many reasons to hope. Chief among them for me is that we are not alone. God knows our fear, and loves us not a bit less because of it, does not turn away from us because of it. I’ve written here before about how comforting it was for me to realize that Jesus, the one I believe to be God in human flesh, knew the feeling of being afraid. If you are anxious for any reason during these strange times, I am right there with you. So let us hope in God, the one who enters into our anxiety and fear with us. What I hear in the comfortingly repetitive pattern of the Bible is God saying, “Do not be afraid, child. And I’m going to say it again a little later when you start to feel afraid again. Do not be afraid. I know you will be, but I’m going to keep saying it. Do not be afraid. I’ll keep saying it as long as you need to hear it, just so you’ll know I’m here.”
* To protect the confidentiality of my patients, the above conversation is a blend of a few different interactions I had in recent days, and any identifying details have been changed.