Some Things Are Not Easy: Duane W.H. Arnold
In the early 90s, I was on the staff of a church in New York City. As a part of my responsibilities I did pastoral calls at a research hospital in which the 7th and 8th floor wards had been turned over to HIV/AIDS patients. This was before the “cocktail” of drugs which promised relief and recovery had been devised. Essentially, if you were resident in one of these wards it was highly probable that you were going to die. Sadly, they did die, by the hundreds and by the thousands. There was little that you could do as a priest apart from being present. You talked to the patient. You held their hand. You talked to the mother, or father, or brother, or sister who sat in a chair on the other side of the bed. You could always pray with them. Often, you administered extreme unction, anointing the patient with oil, knowing that you would not see them again in this life. Many times you attended or presided at the funeral or memorial service that took place in due course. It was an aspect of ministry that was difficult and draining. It was also theologically taxing as one was always asked the question, “Why?”. I would often have to say, “Some things are not easy to understand…”
Today my heart is breaking for so many of my friends and colleagues in active ministry. I, at least, had the opportunity to be present. I could be with the family, I could hold the hand of the patient and, if no one else were present, I could be with them so they would not die alone. In our current circumstance, however, none of this can be done and I grieve for my fellow pastors and priests who have not been able to engage in this critical pastoral role. It is not easy. In the United States 40,000 of our fellow family members, friends and neighbors have died. We should, however, pause to give thanks to God for those nurses and doctors who have not only cared for the victims of COVID-19, but who have also gone the extra mile to be a human presence and comfort, ensuring that patients did not have to die alone. Yet, it has not been easy taking on this role. In talking to friends who are health care professionals, the question of “Why?” is still there, but it is tucked in behind the exhaustion of extended shifts and coping with the onslaught of new patients being admitted.
While I have from time to time been impressed with some of the theological reflections I have seen on social media regarding this pandemic, I have also been appalled by many of the things I have read, as well as by the actions of a minority of pastors and priests. This minority wants to say that the pandemic is easy to understand. It is the judgement of God. It is a hoax. It is a deep state conspiracy. It is part of a wide ranging plot to deprive us of our civil liberties. In wanting to resist self-isolation measures, there are claims that the church is being persecuted. I could go on, but you have probably read and heard enough of such claims and theories yourself. At the root of all these nonsensical pronouncements is the idea that there are easy answers. For instance, since this is a hoax, all you have to do is expose it and things will go back to normal. Others claim that if we just open things up again, the economy will instantly rebound and fatalities will be incidental. It does not seem to matter that science, and modeling, and experts say otherwise, because all of that is too complex. What is desired, and sought after, is an easy answer. Better yet is an easy answer with someone, or something, to blame.
Some things are not easy.
Even our lives are complex. There are perhaps some people whose lives are a straight line. They went to high school, went to college, got married, had 2.5 children and a dog, had one job and encountered no real difficulties. There may be such people, but I have not met them. Most of us have complex lives, with good decisions and bad. Most of us wonder how we ended up who we are and where we are. Like the poet Rilke, we “live the questions until we live ourselves into the answers”. In the very experience of our own lives, we recognize that some things are not easy. They are not easy to understand. They are often not easy to experience. In the complexity of our own lives we recognize the need for patience and, at times, self-denial, to achieve a goal or a beneficial end.
The same holds true in regard to our faith. For the most part, anyone in a pulpit who offers you an “instant” anything is likely a fraud. The Gospels are filled not with instant solutions, but with an incessant call to long term discipleship. “If any man will follow me…” “He who endures to the end…” “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself…” We not only know this from Scripture, but we have witnessed it within our faith journeys. Many, if not most of us, are not in the same theological place in which we started. Over time, most of us have learned that the life of faith is complex. We learn, we grow, we occasionally take detours and then make our way back again. We begin to recognize that easy answers to the mystery of faith, as with the experience of living, are few and far between. Yet, isn’t that what faith is really about? “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Even faith is not about easy answers and simple solutions.
In this time of COVID-19 we are being called to show patience and restraint. We are being asked to exercise a measure of self-denial for the greater good. Should we hold our elected representatives accountable? Of course, but not by endangering of neighbor. Do I still have the question, “Why?” concerning this pandemic? Yes, that question haunts me theologically and, yes, I hope that those who forestalled our preparation for this pandemic will be held accountable for the tens of thousands of lives lost. For this moment, however, I will live those questions and, in due time, trust that I will live myself into the answers. Living ourselves into the answers may be difficult and complex, but some things are not easy.