This post also appears on Mockingbird.com alongside some other excellent essays about grace in the time of coronavirus.
* * *
Last Friday, I was messaging a colleague about her day. She told me about that morning’s trip to the grocery store, “to pick up some essentials,” she said. “Coffee, milk, bread … But is coffee an essential though!?” she joked. One week later, I scroll through Twitter to read about the latest wave of closures. My state’s government releases a tidy, bullet-point list. The list informs me that my friends are out of jobs. Nonessential.
This week, written in my paper planner—an object that now seems rather ironic—I had my own tidy, bullet-point list. “Buy plane tickets. UK travel books from library. Half marathon entry.” Later this spring, I had plans to travel to London to see friends for a few weeks, and today I would have been headed to D.C. for a week with friends there. Church with one friend and dinner with two more, coffee dates and a scheduled run around the monuments. But then planes were grounded, plans changed, governors asked for all nonessential travel to be postponed.
Yesterday, I spoke to a former professor on the phone. We exchanged news of changed and cancelled plans, of online lectures on Flannery O’Connor stories and this new life-in-a-pandemic behavior of discerning when to hold ‘em (essential) and when to fold ‘em (nonessential). “Maybe we’ll find out all of this really was about Jesus!” I laughed through the phone. Sure, it was a joke. But humor tells the truth, too.
Your kingdom come, your will be done. Many of us have prayed this prayer. But I wonder if I prayed it like it was a joke. True, but with an asterisk. True, but able to be retracted. True, but with a laugh. True, but. Like I joked to my professor, maybe we’re finding out all of this—this life, this world, and the chaos of it all—really was about Christ and his kingdom. But the joke has turned out to be not so funny. Why? Because I’m used to wearing the crown, bearing arms, building the kingdom, holding and folding on my terms. As an American, my country’s history is one of rejecting royal rule. But even in just a week, I think many Americans—myself included—are seeing how accustomed we became to being king, how much we made our independence essential to our existence.
I’m not trying to say that this pandemic is a kind of God-ordained joke whose punchline comes at our expense. God does not taunt. A prayer I heard my brother say earlier this week reminded me of God’s care, compassion, and love for all his image-bearers—and that means all. He does not release bullet point lists with who’s in and who’s out, nonessential and essential.
God’s love for all people is essential. As our paper planners turn into kindling and our plans go up in flames, I think about a quote from my favorite novel, Gilead: “The idea of grace had been so much on my mind, grace as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to the essentials.”
Maybe our independence is not essential to our wellbeing. Maybe travel is not the only way to see and understand more. Maybe investing in stocks and 401Ks isn’t the way to a secure future. Maybe the people we’ve looked past are the ones whose lives will point us most to Jesus. Maybe the prayers we only half meant are the prayers God will answer most clearly. Maybe these days will prove to be Kingdom-building, Kingdom-coming.
Maybe we’ll all finally see what really was essential.