Monday, March 23, 2020, Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee issued his first Stay-At-Home order. That day became the marker between BEFORE and NOW. I was so uninformed about viruses, quarantine, and all such related. Naive, was more like it. I was not surprised when the Governor’s order extended into April, but amazed when May was also “cancelled.” My wife Linda consistently predicted the pandemic would last through the fall, even into winter. I couldn’t imagine such a possibility.
The fact that we’re now six months—half a year—into this set-aside time seems incredible. However, I’m becoming reconciled to the reality that NOW is going to continue through fall and into winter. We’re learning that the cold weather, along with the anticipated onslaught on the winter flu season, may more than double the deaths we’ve seen in the past six months. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a trusted source of predictions, has announced that we may see as many as 410,000 U.S. deaths by the end of the year.
Despite that dire pronouncement, I can’t help thinking about life AFTER. A country hymn, written in 1907, asks the question, “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” The verses line out the story of a mother’s death and the family’s quest for assurance that the circle of kinship and belonging will live on in this world as well as the next. The chorus poses the question: “Will the circle be unbroken, by and by Lord, by and by? There’s a better home a-waiting, in the sky, Lord, in the sky.”
The song has become an iconic piece of country music, especially for Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. The Opry House was heavily damaged by flooding in 2010. When the theater was reopened, the first song sung was Will the Circle be Unbroken. That day, the answer was “Yes!”
Now, in 2020, I find myself pondering that question, too, wondering what relationships and institutions will survive this experience.
In my family, I am confident that relationships will be as healthy, perhaps even healthier, since we’ve come to realize how much we treasure one another. I have the same confidence for friendships. We’ve kept in touch, but being in-person, face-to-face (perhaps even with hugs) will be so welcome. Picking up as we were before sounds grand—we’ll slide quickly into that warmth with even more appreciation and love.
Letting all our country’s systems slide back “as before” frightens me, though. The pandemic has spotlighted so many problems: our unpreparedness for this medical emergency, the numbers of workers thrown into unemployment, the lack of medical insurance, the crisis of children learning at home and teachers stretching to teach from home. Added to all that, George Floyd’s death unleashed rage over racial injustice; the demonstrations were a clear cry for the end of white privilege. The easiest thing to do would be to scurry back to as-we-were as restrictions are lifted. It wouldn’t be smart, but it would be easy.
I was a state employee for twenty-five years, and a lay volunteer in the United Methodist Church for longer than that. During all those years, both organizations were trying to figure out how to adapt and change. Those attempts weren’t as effective as hoped. I often thought of the state and the church as large ships, too big to turn quickly, too bulky to change direction. I would think if only we could just stop the whole thing and start over fresh. If only!
Well, hasn’t that happened? Hasn’t this country come close, uncomfortably close, to shutting down? Here’s our chance. The who and how seems overwhelming but, here’s our chance. I’m eager to help my local church think about how we reconstruct ourselves. I wish you well as you pick up the piece you want to influence. It won’t be easy, but it will be smart. This opportunity gives me optimism. We have the ability to do this!
I’m pessimistic, however, about whether the U.S. citizenry-circle can hold. The other morning, I clicked on my car radio and caught the end of a story on my NPR station. The report was about irreconcilable differences in the country that might not be solvable. That got me thinking about the upcoming presidential election. I’d been focused on the election itself—prayerfully hoping we’d see a change at the top. Now I find myself worrying about our life together post-election.
I’ve been thinking about the previous presidential votes I’ve cast. Sometimes I’ve been delighted with the outcome, other times I’ve been disappointed. But never, until 2016, had I been thrown into despair and disbelief. I remember election evening and being crushed by the decision. The only thing worse I can imagine would be a repeat this November.
Following all other elections up to 2016, our country reconciled itself to new leadership and moved on. We are now, though, so divided, so firmly, vehemently committed to our own sides, I can’t imagine how we’ll move forward. The result of the election is guaranteed to leave millions of citizens dismayed. Anger is a given, violence a possibility.
In 1972, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released an album titled Will the Circle be Unbroken.” Jeff Hanna, one of the founding members of the band, reminisced on NPR, October 30, 2018: “A war was raging in Vietnam right then, and there was a lot of peace marches going on and hippies versus the rednecks. And there was a lot of these sides that just did not trust each other. And hearing folks tell us stories like, you know, I hadn’t talked to my dad in years and we sat down and this record became a bonding point for us—that’s deep stuff.”
I can’t shake the question consuming my mind. Is there anything in our communal past that will give us the strength to face, then to heal, the turmoil that will consume us post-election? I pray we repair the links of our circle.
Thank you for reading. I’d welcome your thoughts on the AFTER.