Hindsight is 20/20: Pandemics, Promises, and Possibilities
“And so the Shortest Day came and the year died.” -From “The Shortest Day” by Susan Cooper
Today is December 21, 2020. It is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere—the shortest day of the year regarding the proportion of daylight to night light. Susan Cooper’s poem, “The Shortest Day,” illuminates the mystery of this day and speaks to what so many hope. Namely, for the year 2020 to die. For most, today is the shortest day in what has felt like the longest year in a century.
Looking back on 2020, I’ve discovered promises and possibilities within this year of the pandemic. These promises and possibilities were found during moments of significant meaning-making. Many made meaning by looking to sacred text for some parallel experience to the pandemic’s plight and impact. The foremost prolific biblical scholars of the last half-century released their own reflections. In April 2020, Walter Brueggemann released “Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty.” N.T. Wright released “God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath” in June 2020. Both writers offered reflections on the possibilities and promises of a pandemic.
The biblical text that has captured my imagination and shaped my meaning-making process most recently is Noah and the flood. In many ways, it captures the essence of my experience of the dual pandemic: coronavirus and racism. Genesis 6 describes the divine grief and sorrow experienced after witnessing humanity’s shortcomings. After 40 days and nights of rain, the global flood reached all of creation and spared only those of Noah’s household who had followed the instructions to shelter in place within the ark. God promised Noah that there would be new possibilities after the global pandemic: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22 NRSV).
Although the promise to “be fruitful and multiply” was extended to Noah and his sons, the possibilities would not be enjoyed equally. Sometime after the flood, Noah planted a vineyard, made and then overindulged in its wine, and fell into a drunken stupor. Ham, the youngest of Noah’s three sons, saw his father’s nakedness and told his older brothers. To avoid the shame of seeing their father’s nakedness, Shem and Japheth walk backwards into their father’s tent and cover him. When Noah awakes from his stupor and learns of his exposure, he shames Ham by cursing him and his descendants to serve his two older brothers and their descendants in perpetuity.
As Isabella Wilkerson, in her most recent work “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent,” explains, Ham and his descendants (Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan) were cursed not only to servitude but also to black skin. This understanding would be co-opted by Eurocentric readings of the text in the Middle Ages to inform the first pillar of caste: “Divine Will and the Laws of Nature.” Since then, white superiority and black inferiority have been thought of as edicts of divine will following nature’s laws. This false promise has fueled the global racism pandemic’s brutal possibilities for at least the last 400 years.
My personal reflection on the dual pandemic’s impact in Genesis 9 reveals what people of African descent had experienced time and time again. We uncover the nakedness of the majority culture’s shortsighted use of and indulgence in the possibilities of the promises of “seedtime and harvest” before being cursed and subjected to a subservient class within the social caste. As a result, we are disproportionately impacted by preexisting conditions as essential workers from the past plantation to the front lines of essential industries today.
What hopeful possibilities and promises can be found when those who reveal the naked truth of our forefathers’ vulnerability are cursed and shamed, while those who hide this truth are blessed and dignified? On this shortest day of light, I look again to my biblical ancestors’ for a glimmer of hope. Hindsight affords us a re-reading of the biblical text to discover the promises and possibilities therein. All of the descendants of Ham journeyed south to the continent of Africa. They took the promises extended to Noah’s descendants and made use of the possibilities afforded to them, including taking dignity and pride in their black skin. In hindsight, my re-reading has revealed the many insights to be gained from making biblical Africans great again.
There are 5 (the number of grace) such examples of biblical Africans that provide models of excellence worth noting— The Queen of Sheba, King Tirhakah, Ebed Melech, Simon of Cyrene, and the Ethiopian eunuch (a court officer of the Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians). I will reflect on these biblical African models throughout 2021. In these personalities, I see the possibilities–purpose, power, posture, position, and passion–within the promises of life before, during, and after a pandemic.
On this shortest day, just hours after the setting sun, we bore witness to the “Christmas Star,” that is, the “great conjunction” and solar passing of Jupiter by Saturn. Some 400 years had passed since the last occurrence of this celestial event. Unlike the temporary promise of annual vaccinations or even celestial meetings, the promises of Christmas are eternal. They address all sides of the problems we face and speak to the need for salvation. Salvation offers us a glimmer, no a beam, of hope through the possibilities of knowing that God is with us.
Over the summer, I lost a friend to old age. Thinking about
it, we were 48 years apart. I have friends my age, but there was something
about Miss Betty that kept our friendship going for many years. She lived next
door to me for years. Un-married. No children. Devout Catholic. Miss Betty was
an independent person. She loved her home and all her possessions. After her
stroke and a weak heart, she had no choice but to move into a senior living
facility. First an apartment to herself and then hospice care in her last
years. When I went to visit at the facility, we talked about her health, my
family, work, money, you name it. At every ending of our time together, we
prayed. She said she loved my prayers. I mean Pentecostals pray a prayer! I
knew she would not make it for long. Every time I left her place, I would say,
“I’ll see you again.” I never knew the day before she passed, that would be the
last time I said those words.
Prior to Miss Betty’s passing, I told my good friend about our
wonderful conversations and how we talked about God. My spiritual friend asked,
“Have you ever led her into the sinner’s prayer?” I responded, “We prayed, but
I never ask her to invite Christ into her life.” My friend told me to start
your prayer and say repeat after me. I mean hearing those simple words gave me
the confidence to do it. And the week before Miss Betty passed, she accepted
Christ. It came from my mouth, but it was Holy Spirit guiding me. In my
lifetime, I have always asked those I encountered, “Do you want to accept
Christ as your Savior?” Some said yes, while others said not at this time.
Jesus talked a lot about seed planting. Even if the person
you share the Word with says, not this time, you are still planting the seed!
As God works through us and we share our faith with others, we never know if
the Word we share will take root or when. I’ve known Miss Betty for many years,
but the moment she received Christ as her personal Savior it was God’s time! I
miss my friend but I know she’s in glory with our Heavenly Father. We
Be encouraged that our sowing of the Good News might, even
after many years, be received by someone who will “accept it, and produce a