Word for Word 3/25/20

Rev. Dr. Grant M. VanderVelden
Rev. Dr. Grant M. VanderVelden

Frankly, my wife is the better parent.

Julie is far more attentive than I when it comes to holding our three children to task for things like homework, household chores, getting enough sleep, eating their vegetables, and taking their vitamins.

Me? Well, while I sometimes parent with the speed and efficiency of a well-oiled machine, I’m more inclined to be the let’s-have-chocolate-cake-for-breakfast-and-binge-watch-some-Netflix kind of dad.

But then came last week Monday, the first day of what looks to be four weeks of no school here in Waukon. With Julie out the door and off to work, I was flying solo – alone on the front-lines of parenting for our two high-school-age sons and our college daughter home on spring break.

Our daughter was up early to report for duty as emergency babysitter for two little neighbor boys whose parents both had to work, leaving them in a last-minute child-care lurch. But our boys slept in. (Remember, I’m the bad dad who always lets them sleep in.)

When our boys finally awoke late morning, I took a break from my pastoral duties and sat down with them at the breakfast table. I wanted to see how they were doing and touch base on their plans for the day. Naturally, we started talking about the new coronavirus and its anticipated long-term impact on us and our community.

That’s when our younger son asked a good question. He wondered if the worry and panic filling our days was anything like the public alarm over the polio scare of the 1950s.

That outbreak was a little before my time, but growing up in the 1960s, the experiences of abject terror were still painfully real for our moms and dads. So, having heard their stories of “social avoidance” in the epidemic face of polio, I knew I could answer our son’s question with some degree of anecdotal authority.

But, in a rare moment of proactive parenting, I got what I thought was a brilliant idea. Rather than answer our son’s question outright, I put the onus of learning back on him and assigned him some homework.

“Go do some online research and find out how Americans reacted to the polio scare,” I commanded. “You can make your oral report over family dinner tonight. Power Point is optional.”

Receiving a similar assignment was our older son, who’d just said something about the classic children’s program “Sesame Street.”

“Go find out how ‘Sesame Street’ got its start. Your oral report is due at dinnertime, too.”

Somewhat to my surprise, our boys dug into their assignments, and with deadline at hand, they made their reports at the dinner table as the whole family – all five of us – savored the comforting taste and smell of spaghetti and garlic toast.

And I finally shared with them the stories of my childhood that I’d held back earlier in the day – stories about the polio scare, about “Sesame Street,” and about the Muppets’ children’s-TV predecessor, “Captain Kangaroo.”

That spawned more stories from the same genre: “What was it like when you were a kid, dad?” From there, we moved on to sharing more-recent memories. As a family, we “remembered the time when … .” We laughed, and we talked, and we laughed some more – well past dessert.

While that’s happened before, extended after-dinner family time typically happens only once in a blue moon. And with our freshman daughter usually away at college, a meal with all five of us together has become the exception not the rule.

But that simple Monday-night meal sparked a trend that has continued in our household. Our days of self-imposed coronavirus exile have been filled with more meaningful conversation, intimate interaction, and sharing of wisdom. Alongside the story-telling and remembering when, honest fears and other feelings are being expressed.

Hope and assurance is being given and received.

In short, we’re connecting with one another in ways heretofore unexperienced and unimagined.

That surprise gift has spilled over to my social media, too. I’ve had any number of good online conversations with old friends from childhood and college as well as treasured former colleagues and long-lost cousins. And they all seem to be experiencing what I’m experiencing – the sheer joy and sweet blessing of connecting and re-connecting with the people who truly matter the most.

An old chum from our days together in journalism school touched my heart with a simple comment: “I love you, brother.”

Without a doubt, the heavy thumb of coronavirus is pressing down hard on the reset button of our lives. And that, understandably, is producing anxiety, fear and hardship for many.

Even so, this unwelcome rearrangement of life as we know it also is producing some good fruit. Coronavirus is forcing us to rethink our behaviors and re-adjust our priorities, and that’s a good thing.

In the end, when the battle with coronavirus is finally won, there undoubtedly will be social and economic wounds in need of long-term care. Healing and recovery likely will feel like a long, hard slog.

But I also believe we will look back upon it all and realize that we were blessed. Indeed, God really was working together unto good in the midst of our illness and heartbreak, our fear and panic. That is, after all, exactly what God promises to do.

Perhaps our time of hunkering down will have helped us finally recognize that downtime is a gift – a time of sabbath rest that allows us to spend quiet time with our thoughts or quality time with our family and friends. Thanks to the blessing of sabbath, we are freed from the usual crazy-busy rush of places to be and things to do, and we are refresh and renewed, restored and redeemed, recalibrated and resurrected.

So, go ahead and enjoy this sabbath time! Read. Build something. Make some soup (and share it with a neighbor). Play a game. Listen to music. Reach out to a friend. Maybe even serve chocolate cake for breakfast and binge-watch some Netflix.

With weekend services canceled in most congregations, any of these sabbath activities can be worshipful in its own way, if you understand “worship” as rest and renewal by connecting and re-connecting with God and each other. Be well!

Rev. Dr. Grant M. VanderVelden
First Presbyterian Church , Waukon


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