“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” -- Ecclesiastes 1:9
Several months ago, I was listening to a light-hearted commentary about current events relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. The person speaking was a comedian, and one of the gifts of a comic is to notice the things in life that often go unnoticed by the rest of us. In this instance, the comedian noted a word that keeps coming up in the reporting about the pandemic. That word is “unprecedented.” To back up his point, clips from various forms of news media – newspapers, television, radio, etc. – were displayed. And sure enough, the word “unprecedented” was being used over and over to describe the current events of the unfolding pandemic. It clearly demonstrated the unprecedented use of the word unprecedented!
Just recently, a friend reminded me of a book that I read years ago, Gilead by the acclaimed novelist Marilynne Robinson. The book was first published in 2004, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Gilead is a short novel, but it is not a page-turner. Robinson’s prose has been described as “gravely measured and thoughtful,” and I remember lingering longer over certain passages, with a hope that the extra time would allow me to apprehend some of the depths of her reflections on life. Robinson grew up in the Presbyterian Church, and later became a member of a Congregationalist church. Although she is a teacher of writing by profession, Robinson has an interest in theology, particularly the works of John Calvin.
Gilead is a series of fictional autobiographical reflections written by the Rev. John Ames to his young son. The year is 1956. Reverend Ames, an aging Congregationalist minister who lives in rural Gilead, Iowa, is nearing the end of his life. He wants to record some of his family history and life learnings for his son, who at the time is too young to appreciate what his father wants to share.
I am not going to give a “book report” here, in case you have not read the novel. I do want to share a portion of it, two paragraphs. It is interesting to note the things we gloss over in literature on one reading, but those same overlooked details seem to be highlighted on another reading. Here is Reverend Ames writing:
People don’t talk much now about the Spanish influenza, but that was a terrible thing, and it struck just at the time of the Great War, just when we were getting involved in it. It killed the soldiers by the thousands, healthy men in the prime of life, and then it spread into the rest of the population. It was like a war, it really was. One funeral after another, right here in Iowa. We lost so many of the young people. And we got off pretty lightly. People came to church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit as far from each other as they could. There was talk that the Germans had caused it with some sort of secret weapon, and I think people wanted to believe that, because it saved them from reflecting on what other meaning it might have. (Page 41)
It is hard to understand another time. You would never have imagined that almost empty sanctuary, just a few women there with heavy veils on to try to hide the masks they were wearing, and two or three men. I preached with a scarf around my mouth for more than a year. Everyone smelled like onions, because word went around that flu germs were killed by onions. People rubbed themselves down with tobacco leaves. (Page 43)
So, are our times truly “unprecedented” – or is “there nothing new under the sun?” I do not know when Marilynne Robinson started writing Gilead, but it was written at least seventeen years ago. The conditions during the time of Spanish influenza sound very much like the conditions of our present reality with COVID-19. We are spread out and in masks. Like then, there are speculative theories today about who might be behind the virus, and there are various proposed remedies and cures. The times are unprecedented for us, but they are not unprecedented in the broad scope of human history.
We do well to remember the words of Genesis 3:16: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are finite, mortal creatures in a vast universe, and there are forces of nature great and small that regularly remind us of our finitude. Unlike the people living during the Spanish influenza pandemic, we have a century of medical advances behind us that significantly increase the likelihood of survival. But, nothing is guaranteed. We lock our doors, fasten seatbelts… wear face masks and socially distance. We do what we can to be sensible and safe; but in the end, we can’t save ourselves. We can only trust the One who can save us, realizing from history and the passage of time that we will make it through.
Rev. Barrett Ingram