There’s a chance that we’ll be able to gather again as a congregation this coming Sunday. The governor’s office and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare have been putting together a plan to “reopen” Idaho, which advances in stages, once certain health criteria are met. And, as we stand right now, thing are looking promising. We may be able to open our doors on the Lord’s day, and gather together around God’s word again. But it will not be exactly like it was two months ago. A lot has changed, and we’re still getting used to it.
I read a news article earlier this week on the situation faced by High School Juniors who are scheduled to take Advanced Placement tests in order to get college credit. The AP system not only grants credits for material the student has mastered, but is integral to the college application process—a lot of the more competitive schools consider the number of AP credits a student has as part of the admissions process. So it’s a pretty big deal. And while SAT and ACT tests have been postponed, the AP tests are moving forward in an online format. Unfortunately, a lot of these talented and intelligent high school juniors prepared for a three hour multiple choice and essay test in a proctored setting, and now they’re going to have to take a 45 minute short answer test online—often in crowded homes with the distraction of a bunch of other quarantined people.
The concern—for students, administrators, and college admissions officers alike—is that the test may not be functioning the same way as all the other tests that have been offered. Because everything about this situation is so unsettled and disruptive, there’s a question of fairness. And here’s what got me thinking: when things are going along fine—what we might call normal—we get used to how our lives function. There’s some good stuff, and there’s some bad stuff, and we’re pretty much OK with it, because it’s “normal.” But when there’s a disruption, we enter into what Leon Festinger called “cognitive dissonance”—the sense that things aren’t right. This triggers a natural desire to regain “normal,” and we will do an awful lot to get ahold of that sense of normal. Festinger talked about how a smoker will willfully reject evidence that smoking is bad for them, just to maintain their sense of normal. But when we can’t regain what we feel is normal, it causes all sorts of stress and uncertainty—this is what those students are feeling because there’s not much they can do to move through the AP testing process in a way that feels normal to them, and it’s why they are kind of freaking out about it, and questioning the fairness of it all.
We’re equipped to handle a certain amount of disruption or dissonance in our lives. Life is inherently unpredictable, and so we need to have a measure of adaptability. And we all know people who are pretty good at this, and those who are not. But that range of adaptability usually plays out within certain, reasonable parameters—most all of us can adapt when we get a downpour instead of a light drizzle. But what do we do when the hurricane hits? How do we react when the source of dissonance is so big it causes a cascade of circumstances we don’t have any experience dealing with? Again, you’re probably getting tired of hearing the word “unprecedented,” but we really are in uncharted waters with this whole pandemic. And it’s having this cascading effect on so much in our lives—in February, do you think any of these High School Juniors were concerned about how they might have to take their AP tests? But here we are.
This coming Sunday, if we get the go-ahead to meet together from state officials, we’re going to gather as a congregation in a totally unique manner. The church has never gathered with these particular restrictions: that we maintain 6 feet of physical distance, that we refrain from spending too much time talking face to face, that we don’t hug or shake hands or generally offer the kind of physical support and love we all find so comforting. We’ve never had to ask those with underlying health conditions or those in vulnerable populations to seriously consider staying home—these are the very people we want to be with, to pray for them, to lay hands on them, and to support them in the challenges they face. And so there’s a profound sense of dissonance as we plan and prepare for the next time we can gather. It doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel fair. But here we are.
There are a lot of folks who are facing battles far more significant than altered formats on their AP tests or worshiping in an unfamiliar manner. There are people who are out of work, or who may lose their businesses. There are people in ICUs struggling to take their next breath. There are doctors and nurses who cannot see their own families because they’ve been exposed to this virus in the course of their work, there are people working in sketchy conditions just to keep the true essentials flowing. There’s the terrifying isolation of those in care facilities. People have been dropped in countless, authentically life-altering situations, changes so profound and seemingly permanent that the disorientation and dissonance is more than they can bear. We’re all trying to adapt, and some are having to adapt to more than others.
So where is God in all this? Well, when the storms batter us, when the unpredictability creates so much dissonance that we are overwhelmed, when it all seems so unfair, God is the one constant that we can trust. In the chaos, God brings order. The best response to this dissonance is not to try to return to our old consonance—to get back to normal—because there is probably no going back. We’d be fighting against a pretty overwhelming current. We can return to relative stability, but it will be in a different (hopefully, possibly better) place than where we were. And I believe it will be God who grants us that stability, if we choose Him over the empty promises and solutions offered by the world.
In Psalm 56, David writes: “Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me; my enemies trample on me all day long, for many fight against me. O Most High, when I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me?” David’s personal example of dissonance seems to be as profound as the dissonance we are all going through together these days. David had the ground pulled out from under him countless times. And David learned where to turn when the uncertainty became more than he could bear. We’re going to have to make some adjustments when we come together again, but what do we have to fear? We aren’t going to be able to follow the same patterns of worship we’ve been used to, but what can flesh do to us? Our desire to have things go back to normal fights against the reality we are enmeshed in, but we have one in which we can always trust. All these restrictions seem like an imposition, and they seem a little unfair, but it’s where we are. And we need to keep our personal dissonance in perspective—far more is being demanded of others. But above all, never forget that we have a source of stability and peace in a turbulent time. In God, whose word we praise, in God we trust; we are not afraid; what can flesh do to us?