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Looper column: The stubbornly silent future: Learning to trust

Shayne Looper
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The Daily Herald

Our governor’s “shelter in place” order has changed the way we live. Rather than meeting people at church or in the coffee shop, I’ve been meeting people on Zoom. Pastoral visitation has not happened in people’s homes but on our phones. I and others have been calling our church family, checking on their health and seeing if they need groceries or meds. Many of these members are older and, to a person, they are doing remarkably well. They are a resilient bunch.

It turns out that many of our older members were spending most of their time at home, even before the governor’s order. The pandemic has not affected them in the same way it affects the soccer mom, who puts 25,000 miles a year on her van, or the retired couple who eat out five nights a week.

While our church family is doing well, the question on their minds, and their friends’ and neighbors’ minds, is: How long will this last? They want to know what’s coming next and when things are going to return to normal.

All of us have a sort of inner gravity that constantly pulls us back toward normal, even when normal is not healthy. When will things be normal again? Our routines, which always have suffered interruptions, have now been turned on their heads. Everything has changed.

The pandemic has highlighted the limits of our ability to control the future. When we are in our usual routines, we assume we know what is coming next. Now, we are painfully aware that we don’t. When normalcy finally returns, that awareness is likely to dissolve like a mist.

However, when the awareness of our limits dissolves, the limits themselves remain. As long as our routines are in full swing and our rhythms uninterrupted, we can overlook those limits. We may even congratulate ourselves that our crystal ball readings have been spot-on. Nevertheless, human beings are not, and never have been, good at controlling the future.

When I was a schoolboy, life suddenly changed in my household. My dad, who had been drinking and hanging out with a rowdy crowd, gave up alcohol. Previously, he was gone most evenings playing softball, bowling or playing cards and, always, drinking. Now he was playing catch with my brother and me. We were going fishing together. We even went camping.

The future must have seemed brighter to my mother. It certainly seemed more orderly. We got into a routine of sorts. The uncertainty of the past was gradually replaced by confidence in the future.

It was short-lived. Even at that time, unperceived by my parents, a white blood cell in my brother Kevin’s body was damaged and began growing and dividing uncontrollably. He had leukemia.

I don’t know how long this went on before my parents noticed something was amiss. For a while, life continued normally. Kevin seemed to have everything going for him. He was a gifted athlete, popular at school, and was loved by kids and adults alike. Then the sky came crashing in.

There was no warning that life was about to change. But that’s the way it is. The future only occasionally issues warnings. Usually, it is stubbornly silent. Our confidence concerning the future is built on shaky ground. Even now, some reader’s (or the writer’s) cells may be dividing uncontrollably, and there is no indication of what is coming.

If COVID-19 helps us come to terms with this fundamental uncertainty, we will have wrestled some good out of a bad situation. If we are able to replace a wispy confidence in the future by a secure confidence in God, we will stand on firmer ground. Oswald Chambers confessed, “Faith doesn’t always know where it is being led,” then added, “… but it does love and know the one that’s leading.”

It is ironic. When our routines are in place and we think we have everything in hand, our confidence in the future is set to betray us. But when our routines have been upended and we’re not sure what’s coming next, our confidence in God can enable us to face the future with courage and peace.

Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. His blog, “The Way Home,” is at shaynelooper.com.