The names Chuck, Tom, Mary and Doris may not mean anything to you. The numbers 47, 6,521 and 517,224 by themselves they don't convey much. When descriptors are added such as father-in-law, friend, colleague, parishioner and last week in Nobles County, Minnesota, and the U.S., those names and numbers take on more meaning. When we add what the names and the numbers have in common — COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 — it might evoke an emotional response.
It was one year ago that we moved in COVID mode. It has been hard for us, as we have dealt with all the changes this past year. There has also been a change in our attitudes over the year. I remember more than one meme that circulated early last summer that attempted to compare the number of deaths from COVID-19 with the number of deaths in the past year from things like automobile accidents or cancer. At that point in time, the number of COVID deaths had not started their rapid climb. The memes seemed to be a response from those who were upset with the changes being imposed on us or denied the growing consensus, or maybe those who hadn’t been touched by the suffering or death of someone they knew.
Now there are few who deny the impact of this disease on our country or world. Most of us, if not all, know of at least one person who has died from this disease, and many of us know of others who suffer from long term effects of the disease. Yet as I reflect on this past year, one of the things that has happened is recalling others who have died. As a pastor, I’ve been invited into many different families as we’ve been confronted by death.
Each death is unique. Sometimes death is a terrible tragedy, such as the young girl and mother who died in a plane crash on an Easter Sunday. Other deaths have a more familiar pattern, such as friends and acquaintances, and grandparents and parents after weeks, months or even years of suffering. Each evokes a different response. Some draw us to the precipice, and other times it is a welcome relief. Yet, each death causes us to reflect on the preciousness of life.
Death of loved ones is not the only loss that causes us to grieve. We often grieve loss of jobs, relationships or physical health. We may even grieve when good things happen because it involves change.
With all the death and changes this past year related to COVID-19 — in addition to the, shall we say, more familiar losses — there is a need to be intentional in our grieving. I have found the Psalms to be an excellent source of lament as they give voice to a wide variety of sorrows. Phrases like “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me for I am poor and needy” or ”Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer listen to my cry of supplication” are scattered through them.
In this season of Lent, we in the church often focus on our need of repentance and asking forgiveness of God. It is also a good time to pray with Jesus words from Psalm 22:
My God, my God why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Or maybe we need to recall the opening words of Psalm 56:
Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me;
all day long foes oppress me;
my enemies trample on me all day long.
There is something cathartic in expressing our hurts, griefs and anxieties. There is also something renewing in claiming the promises of God’s eternal saving presence as the Psalmist does in Psalm 57:
God will send from heaven and save me,
He will put to shame those who trample on me
God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.
May the God of all hope surround you with love as we continue our journey through this pandemic and through this season of Lent.
Galen Smith is pastor at Worthington's Westminster Presbyterian Church.