The pandemic really messed me up. The truth is, the pandemic messed all of us up. The last 20 months have forced us to abstain from normalcy and literally distance ourselves from life-giving mainstays: coffee shop conversations and barstool fellowships, in-person therapy sessions, live music and movies in packed theaters, worship in vibrantly full sanctuaries, Thanksgiving at table with family and friends. Everything changed overnight and we had to adapt and change with it. It really messed us up.
A few months into the pandemic, I told a mentor that it felt like the ground was shifting under our feet faster than ever before. “How do I cope?” I asked. “What is your rock?” He replied.
In the old hymn, “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less,” Christians sing, “On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.” “That’s my rock,” I said. The thing is, though, I don’t claim that rock; the rock claims me. And that sure foundation Christians understand as the living word of God is not stagnant; rather, Christ is the living word, a dynamic foundation, a solid rock we can rely on to constantly be changing us to meet every moment as God intends.
When the ground underfoot shifts at breakneck speed, fear becomes a tempting rock. Fear of change can bring out our worst self, where we cling to stagnant cultural doctrines that are passively accepted, seldom challenged, and boisterously defended, because those mainstays assure our self-preservation. But self-preservation, much like the protection of personal liberties, is antithetical to the transformative gospel of Christ. It doesn’t give the solid rock a chance to change us so that we can meet the inevitable changes of the ground-shifting world around us.
I told my mentor how we had recently put a Bible verse on our church’s sign that read, “Honor the immigrant and treat them like your own” (Leviticus 19:33). Someone contacted us with an angry refutation of that message saying, “We’re a nation of laws. You need to read your Bible.” Never mind that the message literally came from the Bible; the concerned person’s reaction to the sign was a defense of xenophobic cultural doctrine that had nothing to say about the transformative gospel message of Jesus Christ, nothing to say about the power of the living word working in and through our lives in ways that liberate us from the idolatry of self-preservation and toward one another.
“I mean, how can God have an inch,” I asked, “if we’re spouting off stuff that doesn’t affect us at all, but just builds us up in our own minds?” It’s one thing to claim our rock in troubling times; it’s another thing to let go of our claim on it and let the rock claim us, transform us, change us for the better.
The pandemic really messed me up. Before March of last year, I never would have imagined not being in a sanctuary of people each week; not delivering sermons to a sea of human beings in the flesh; not having contact with family and friends; not attending weddings and funerals; not being able to visit church members in the hospital, but I managed.
Now that I’m on the other side of that, wading through the waters of still-lingering ambiguity, I’m different from the person I was 20 months ago. I’m changed because of the unchanging rock of God’s love that enveloped me throughout those unimaginable challenges and refused to let me go.
I have yet to process the toll this pandemic has taken, but I’m grateful that I’m not exactly as I was, that I’ve been forced to think a little less insularly and a little more outwardly, to prioritize less individualistically and more communally, and to love just as much inwardly as I do outwardly. I’m grateful that my rock, who loves me as I am, but loves me too much to leave me as I was when they found me, invites me beyond myself to love my immigrant neighbor while also loving the person who admonishes me for it; because how can God have an inch if I build myself up against my fearful neighbor and go on blindly giving thanks that I am not like them?
The pandemic has messed us up, but what have we learned from it? How have we changed? You are not the same person you were 20 months ago, and time will help you assess that reality and its ripple effects. You might begin processing all that by asking yourself the question from my mentor: “What is your rock?” What has brought you “thus far on the way,” as the Black national anthem sings? What has brought you “safe thus far,” as “Amazing Grace” sings? And how has that rock changed you?
My rock tells me to reach beyond what has been beneficial for me in the past and strive for what is good and life-giving for those to whom I’m inextricably bound, no matter who they are or where they come from, and no matter what happens in the world around me. My rock tells me to love God fully, and to love my neighbor as myself. And my rock tells me that all other ground is sinking sand.
Still processing. Still giving thanks.
The Rev. Dan De Leon is the pastor of Friends Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, College Station.