I lay alone in the hospital bed with searing pain coursing through my body. For three months, I had been unable to stand or sit for longer than 30 minutes. The doctors had no solutions for my constant nerve pain and debilitating muscle spasms. In my agony, I wondered if my calling to Christian teaching and scholarship had run its course.
Before the pain started, I had been a fairly healthy and successful professor at Baylor University. I had published multiple books, completed work on a significant grant, and enjoyed class discussions with PhD students in a program I helped build. In March 2017, I went in for what I assumed was a routine medical procedure. Shortly afterward, I was in anguish.
I became a prisoner to pain. To keep it under control, I had to languish in bed. I could no longer go to work, exercise, drive, or sit at the table with my family for evening meals. I felt isolated from friends and church.
Nor could I fulfill the basic responsibilities of being a professor. During most of those months, I did not even feel up to reading, much less writing. In my Job-like pity party, I felt as if anything that had given me fulfillment or a sense of identity had suddenly been taken away. “Who am I, now that I seem to have lost everything?” I wondered. Would I ever be able to teach, write, and learn in the same way again?
In all likelihood, the fallout from COVID-19 has led some educators and students to ask similar questions. Perhaps you (or your loved ones) have contracted the virus and dealt with long-term complications. Perhaps your life arrangements have been upended because of online learning, lockdown restrictions, or the economic fallout. Crises always raise questions about who we are and what God has called us to do. I hope to remind us of the reasons for our calling to learn—and to address the barriers and distractions that crises tend to throw in our way.
Prayer Must Take Over
“I don’t want to die,” my youngest son said while discussing COVID-19 one night at the dinner table. He is 16 and has a compromised immune system, as does my wife. My other son used to have asthma. I also have 81-year-old parents, one of whom has a partial lung. Everyone I love seems vulnerable.
I know my experience is not unique. We all fear losing people we love. The specter of death haunts us. We may lose sight of the calling we have received from God. What do we do when the fear of death distracts us from that calling?
First, we must pray. When my wife told me she wasn’t feeling well a few months ago, I faced an onslaught of paralyzing fear. Was it COVID-19? When fear threatens to take over our lives, prayer must take over instead. We pray to align our hearts with God’s heart. Through prayer, he comforts and guides us, reminding us of who he is and who we are.
What does prayer look like during times of crisis? There are any number of forms it can take. My brother-in-law, who lives with unforgiving chronic pain, taught me that sometimes you just pray, “Lord, help me live this next hour well” or “Lord, help me live this next five minutes well.” Other times, prayer is more colorful. During my health problems, many of my prayers involved little more than yelling at God. If you have yelled at God recently, that’s good. It means you are still living in relationship with him, even amid extreme stress. Furthermore, as the Psalms remind us, God can take it. In fact, God is the only one who can carry the burden of our fear.
Yet the Psalms also give us something more. During my hospital stay, some old university friends came from Virginia to visit, which proved providential. They prayed for me and lifted my spirits. Later, one sent me a book of Psalms. Of course, I already had a Bible, but for some reason, that separate book of Psalms got me reading, praying, and memorizing them more.
Through those three practices, I remembered to live in God’s story. I gained words to express my anguish in the laments: “I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched” (Ps. 69:3). I breathed in hope-filled longings: “Lord, I wait for you; you will answer, Lord my God” (Ps. 38:15). And I was reminded: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18).
Remember the First Great Commission
Once we deal with our emotional paralysis and immerse ourselves again in communion with God, we can refocus on fulfilling our calling within God’s story. C. S. Lewis’s sermon “Learning in War-Time,” delivered at the beginning of World War II, reminds us that humans are always facing down the reality of death and eternal judgment. Lewis invites Christian students to ask themselves, “How [is it] right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics, or biology”?
In my first year of college, I pondered similar questions, and I started answering them in a way that interfered with my call to learn. In my mind, simple evangelism and discipleship (as I narrowly conceived them) took precedence over political science and economics. I found myself convicted by the same pointed question Lewis asked his audience: “How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think about anything but the salvation of human souls?”
It took me two years of college to understand what Lewis’s essay illuminated in a few paragraphs. You cannot live your whole life with a battlefront mentality. As Lewis noted, even frontline soldiers in World War I rarely talked about the war. Instead they spent most of their time doing normal activities, including reading and writing.
The war against COVID-19 has not changed that reality. Certainly, we spend more time hand washing, social distancing, and telecommuting, but we still spend the bulk of it on everyday activities like eating, relating, working, and learning. Our classes, meetings, church services, and hangouts with friends happen virtually or at a distance, but they happen all the same. As Lewis told his faculty and student audience, if you suspend all your intellectual and aesthetic activity in a crisis, “you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better.” We still face decisions about whether to binge Netflix, study for classes, or cultivate deep relationships with friends and family—if only online or six feet apart.
To put it in theological language, even during crisis times, we should not neglect God’s first great commission (filling and cultivating the earth) just because his second great commission (making disciples) remains binding.