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Numbers and Nothingness

Numbers and Nothingness

We have been watching the rising numbers of vaccinations and the falling numbers of COVID infections in our county with just a small glimmer of hopefulness. We are coming upon nearly the one-year anniversary of when we were suddenly shut down completely from having in-person worship—our last, sparsely attended Eucharist last year was March 15. As that anniversary approaches, I must confess to a feeling of weariness. 

Last year, after that crazy Lent and Holy Week, it seemed as though Lent never ended. Some of my churchy friends and I joked that the entirety of 2020 was “the Lentiest Lent we ever Lented.” Little did we know that a year later so little would have changed, and yet so much had. We knew people who got sick, and some of them have yet to fully recover. We knew some who succumbed. Those beloveds were not numbers, either. 

The images of candles lit on the steps of the White House and along the reflecting pool of the National Mall testify to the toll and try to help us truly “see” how staggering the losses have been and continue to be. And then on Feb 22, the US posted the grim milestone of 500,000 COVID deaths—20% of the world’s total in a country with supposedly the greatest medical system and only 4% of the world’s population. Unfortunately, we now have learned that in a battle between medicine and the hubris and denial of community spirit in some of us, medicine in some cases hasn’t stood a chance.

The numbers are looking better, but I hate that phrase. They are NOT numbers. They are people—people who have gotten sick with this terrible illness, and had to be hospitalized. They are also people who have managed to avail themselves of the vaccine—which is quite an accomplishment in my state, where the vaccine distribution has been far from precise. In each case, I pray every day for the people that the numbers represent. And finally, this week, I am able to travel to my home state and get the first round of vaccine into my 92-year-old mother’s arm. There’s a real person behind that number for me—a precious person who has had a hard year since her stroke in May.

I am always trying to remind myself of the counter-cultural way Christians are called to look at the world: honoring the divine within creation and within each other in a culture that loves to denigrate, to mock, to dehumanize. As the sixth chapter of the book of the prophet Micah urged us, we are called to “walk humbly with our God” in a culture that hands power to people who never confess any flaws at all, much less the need to confess.

And this Lent has been driving that home to me too. Many of us share my weariness. After this long Lenten season, it can seem overwhelming to adopt the right spirit of penitence and confession. Perhaps, though, we can confess the hubris that has driven us to this point and undoubtedly prolonged the most severe waves of this pandemic.

It is important to be honest about the ways that this pandemic has allowed us to turn inward, to ignore relationships when we cocooned in our homes. Some of us certainly have lost sight of our obligations to others around us, whether friend or stranger. Encouraged by cruelty emanating from the top of society’s pinnacle (the one time it seems “trickle-down” anything has actually worked), some have turned on others with a ferocity that is heart-breaking. We remember those early days when people hoarded toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and milk to the point that grocery stores in our area had to introduce hours for the elder members of our community so that they would not be left with nothing in the mad scramble.

Some of us let friendships wither in our attempt to cope by taking up new hobbies. When confronted with the choice of Netflix-bingeing or picking up the phone or iPad for a call or a FaceTime chat, we chose the anesthetizing soothe of a new TV series. Or it may be something else: we have become short-tempered with our loved ones because we have been unable to have any time to ourselves. 

We have been under strain, of course. And there have also been moments of beauty and compassion, of course. But the need for confession and penitence is not about self-abasement, but about opening ourselves to God and to each other after our actions may have harmed relationships—relationships that have become even more precious as we have been forced into isolation. We have to get right the proportion of care we give to others in relation to ourselves.

In his poem, “Having Confessed,” the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) speaks of the humility the penitent feels. Yet it is also at that moment that we can go the most awry. He includes this beautiful observation:

                                   “ …We must not anticipate
Or awaken for a moment. God cannot catch us
Unless we stay in the unconscious room
Of our hearts. We must be nothing,
Nothing that God may make us something.”

As Kavanagh points out, confession is a beautiful, necessary thing in the spiritual life—a need, rather than an indulgence. But we have to take care when we confess that we do not confess just in order to be “shriven” or “forgiven” by God. We confess and empty ourselves of our self-involvement for those few precious moments so that God can enter in. We must be brave enough to become “nothing, that God may make us something.”

There have been times when many of us have treated others as less-than in our own anxiety and  fear of scarcity. Perhaps we bewail these manifold sins. Perhaps we have been so busy that we haven’t stopped to reflect, which is a precious gift of confession and penitence without slipping into solipsism. But we err if we either shun confession, or allow it to make us wallow in misery—in both cases, we continue to close ourself off from God and from others, whether through pride or through shame. It is thus that we have gotten it backwards, and confession helps us to reverse the poles of our existence so that our compass points again to Christ, our true North. As Kavanagh noted, “God must be allowed to surprise us.”

May we not treat those around us as either numbers, or as nothing. May we remember that we ourselves are neither mere number nor nothing to God, who lovingly calls us to return to love and community, again and again. May we thus press forward in treasuring the gifts Lent offers in mindfully calling us back to right-relationship with each other and with creation.

The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO.  She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.

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