It’s Only a Matter of Time
May 5, 2020
1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
Psalm 13, NIV
We are now at a point in our sojourn into the land of coronavirus where we are beginning to more seriously transition in our thinking and action from where we “are” to where we “will be.” From our initial anxiety and our commitment to sequestering to perhaps now, a slight sense of desperation, taking the first tentative steps toward what we hope will be, eventually, a return to what we consider a “normal” life together. Our worry and our fear—and indeed, there are serious matters that need to be considered—have some of us moving back to work and school, albeit with tentative steps; while others of us are staying put; and all while there remains reliable evidence that we are far from done with the COVID-19 matter.
Whether or not we are saying it out loud, it can be easy to believe—in fact, truth be told, I want to believe—that it will simply be a matter of time before we make our way back to worship in a sanctuary, playing pickup games on the court, traveling on the train and hosting parties—all up close and personal, sans masks. The challenge, of course, is that none of us knows when that will take place, and none of us has a clear map for how we’ll get there. Still, we assume it’s only a matter of time. And therein lies the rub.
Time. It is that unique pool of experience that we humans swim in like no other animal does, and is shaping our encounter with COVID-19 and with God in ways we are likely very much unaware. In the field of interpersonal neurobiology, we speak of the temporal domain of the mind—we are able to imagine “the past” and “the future” in ways that a snake, a dog, or even a primate doesn’t. Unless they’re in a Gary Larson Far Side comic strip. Animals can “remember”—squirrels are able to recall where they buried their food—but as far as we know, they don’t sit around and talk about what a disappointing harvest of acorns they had this year compared to the great ingathering of 2015. We humans, on the other hand, are different.
There is much more we could say about the sociological, cultural and neurobiological implications of time, but for our purposes here it is enough to know that we “perceive” time as if it is a real thing, with the future approaching and passing by us into a past we can see in our rearview mirror. And to a certain extent, it’s fair to think of it in this way. But mostly, time is something in which our human minds dance as part of how we make sense and tell the stories of our lives, a quality of our existence that God has woven into our human condition and not that of any other creature, again as far as we know. It is the means by which we are given the opportunity to choose what story we will tell about what we perceive has already happened, and what we anticipate will happen. It is the feature that makes the difference between choosing regret or gratitude for the past, worry or hope for the future—and what future, exactly, we invite to inform the world we occupy in the present moment.
And as it also turns out, believe it or not, time is the currency in which COVID-19 is most commonly traded these days. We think that the biggest problem we have is the virus. It’s not. It certainly is a problem, and it’s a major one at that, to be sure. But our most serious, difficult-to-treat, life-threatening disease is our profound, unrelenting inability or unwillingness to do what the poet who penned Psalm 13 committed to do: trust in God’s unfailing love. And that, my friends, is—among other things—a direct function of our relationship with time.
Sensing the oncoming future is something the brain does continually and automatically; sometimes, we simply pay more conscious attention to the process, especially when we are anxious about what we perceive is approaching. We then make sense of that very future as it travels into our past. In this way (and when it comes to the future in particular), our brain behaves like one big anticipation machine, enabling us to predict the future, from where our next footfall will land (and that the floor will hold); to the speed of the oncoming car as we prepare to make a left-hand turn; to the seasonal planting of our garden, to when school will really reopen.
Predictability, as a function of our brain’s “time management system,” is something we depend upon for survival in most situations in life. In fact, when we are in pain, be that emotionally or physically, we tolerate much more easily what I call a “solid” future, one in which you know—can predict—the duration of your suffering with confidence. For example, if you sustained an injury and the doctor informed you that your low back pain would resolve in six weeks, you might not like it, but you would endure it. Likewise, if your injury were such that you would have pain for the rest of your life, you really wouldn’t like it, but (and somewhat counterintuitively), it not being a life-threatening injury, rather merely one that would nag you, you would also find a way to live with it, unpleasant though it may be. In both of these cases, your brain is working with a solid future. A predictable one.
However, if the doctor was unable to foretell how long the pain would last—six weeks? the rest of your life? somewhere in between?—your mind would then have to deal with a future looking directly into the fog. A future without a solid end point. And with my brain constantly on the lookout for a predictable future (much like my looking ahead to the next stone to which I will jump as I cross the creek, not the one on which my foot is now landing), not having access to one only makes me more anxious, and causes me to look even harder into the fog. And on it goes. This uncertain future, this madness of time, does not suit my penchant for predicting and regulating all the variables in the world that make me anxious. I believe that the way to contain my anxiety—that has led to my exhaustion, that has led to my irritability, that is wrapped in my grief for all that COVID-19 has robbed me of in the last eight weeks and intends to for who knows how much longer—is to reestablish my capacity to predict my future. To once again be master of my universe. To be like I was before coronavirus. As much as anything that COVID-19 has dismantled, my hubristic confidence that I can control my future by fixing any problem that comes my way on my timetable may be one of the most prominent. If only temporarily.
But here is where our psalmist comes to our aid. For indeed, he knows what it means to not know the future. “How long?” he asks, he repeats, he pleads. This is a guy who is looking into the fog. This is someone whose story’s rearview mirror is littered with feeling forgotten, invisible and the sorrow of tormenting thoughts. The story he is telling of his past is one of heartache; and of his future, the affliction of unpredictability. But two-thirds of the way through his complaint, he pauses, stops even, regains his composure, and turns. And, of significance, he does not turn to the sudden discovery of a solution to his problems outside of himself (his enemy) or inside himself (his tormenting thoughts and feelings). He does not turn to a predictable future that he can guarantee. Rather, he turns to “…your unfailing love.”
God’s unfailing love. For many of us, especially those for whom those words are quite familiar, they are merely that—words, and words alone. They might make it to the mental realm of an idea, or perhaps a theological abstraction. But real, embodied, felt, sensed love? Let alone, unfailing. What is that? Where can I get some of that? I mean, really. You see, unless I sense in a deeply embodied fashion what it means to be loved, to see you seeing me with mercy and joy, even in the face of my deepest shame, I don’t really know what unfailing love is all about. And you see, the whole project that God began in Genesis and that culminates in Jesus is about his persuading us about how utterly wild he is about us—in the face of everything that is broken about us, pandemics included. And the only way we’re going to know that is if we encounter other people who are wild about us as well. And believe me, they’re out there. Because some of them—many of them, actually—have come, keep coming, in fact, to find me. And God comes to find us in this way because he wants to transform us into pulsating wellsprings of unfailing love ourselves.
And this is where love changes everything my mind wants to do with time. You see, much of my life’s trouble is caused because of the amount of time I spend directing my attention either to the future or the past. But love keeps me right where I am, right here. Right now. In the present moment, in the sightline of the friend who is intentional about delivering to me not only the words but all the nonverbal cues (even if on a Zoom screen or across several feet on my back deck) that tell me he would go to the wall for me. And it is this fierce, lavish love that has me (and countless others) wanting to go the extra mile to do what I can to combat the virus in the first place.
You see, the most important question that will be answered in the next few weeks, months or even years for any of us is not how we beat COVID-19. As I said, that is a serious problem, but not our most serious one. The most prominent question to be answered is to what degree will I become a living, breathing outpost of unfailing love for those around me. But I can’t give what I don’t have. I can’t do that unless I have access to those who love me and are demonstrating that as often as possible. It is to this love, God’s unfailing love that is mediated by his sons and daughters; to this love that is looking for others who are looking for it but may not even know it that we look for the answer to our question, “How long??!!”
In these days, then, consider the times. Commit yourself, as much as you can, to remaining in the present moment, looking for ways to be God’s unfailing love.
Here’s how: each day, choose to look diligently to become, respectively, embodied joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Practice imagining what each word looks and feels like if you were to experience someone directing it to you. Look for moments throughout your day in which you can put your “word for the day” into action. At the end of each day, take five minutes to recall and write down the instances in which you have taken actions of patience or joy or kindness. And then list when you have experienced someone else doing the same for you. Before you know it, you will be paying attention not so much to the future or the past, but rather will find yourself becoming transformed in such a way that no matter what becomes of COVID-19, you’ll know exactly what has become of you. And so will everyone else.
It will only be a matter of time.