“The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech nor are there words; their voice is not heard, yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
But, who can detect their errors?
(Psalm 19: 1-4; 12, 14 NSRV)
Every crisis has its prophets.
Take Winston Churchill. At Britain’s most perilous moment, Churchill rallied the people of Britain by telling them that “this is their finest hour.”
Or, look at Stephen Hawking. In a culture saturated with consumerism but starving for spiritual meaning, Dr. Hawking prescribes wonder as the panacea for malaise.
“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet,” Hawking admonished. “Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”
Yet today’s crisis, ‘our’ Pandemic, needs its own prophet to lead us out of the purgatory of Covid isolation.
Neither politicians nor professors will do. We need a prophet who is indifferent–even unaware– of our need for real human connection.
We need someone so preposterous that they can bring perspective to people suffering under this Kafkaesque crisis where our closest relatives can murder us unwittingly with just the vapour of their breath.
So, here’s my plan: I would like to nominate Forrest Gump as a prophet for our Covidly times.
Sure, he’s a fictional character, but maybe that makes Forrest a fitting mascot for a cartoon epidemic that millions still don’t believe in.
Stigmatized by the insults of others, Forrest Gump painfully confesses to Jenny, “I’m not a smart man,” while ironically preaching wisdom through his words and faithfulness through his actions. Forrest Gump embraces the gospel of his Mama, who preached: “Stupid is as stupid does,” with its unspoken corollary that “Sense is as sensibility does. Well, I’m a disciple of Forrest’s Mama.
Forrest Gump fits the role perfectly, having been persecuted for unspoken sins and forgotten prejudices. Forrest was chased away by the unknown. He survived by just running. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
Let me explain.
In simpler times, a busy man could casually wonder aloud about the efficiency of a steep haircut, and admire the ‘Chic’ leadership image of “The Bald” without needing to commit to the fashion.
Similarly, Pre-Pandemic Man could complain about paying $30 for a lop-sided shearing that was really worth about ten bucks before Salon fee, taxes and tip. Pre-Pandemic Man would do this, because Pre-Pandemic man had evolved to believe that his own knowledge, skills and attitude were more valuable than the skills and services of others, and it was Pre-Pandemic Man’s democratic right to pay as little as possible for every good, service, or product offered by others.
If Pre-Pandemic Man was ever challenged in his thinking by Forrest the Pandemic Prophet, the self-righteous customer would harrumph and argue that a practical man could obviously do as good a job himself, if he only had a set of sharp clippers, a triple mirror, and a little free time.
Such a man might even wonder out loud about the frugal virtues of baldness that include an aura of self-confidence, loosely held authority, and savvy pragmatism.
As evidence, the glossy mags in the strip mall discount unisex hairstylist shop hint that baldness is timeless, and maybe even sexy for aspiring ‘Influencers’, like Patrick Stewart, Steve Jobs, or Stephen Covey.
“Grace under pressure” Hemingway once wrote about men like this. Of course, Hemingway, clad in his adventuresome Fisherman’s crew neck cable-knit wool sweater, was crowned with wavy locks of windswept grey hair, and a full beard. But still.
“Who can detect their errors?”
The psalmist wonders. I must admit that the Fog of Pandemic Lockdown can mess with common sense. Stupid is as stupid does, after all. For every Patrick Stewart and Captain Picard, there’s a Mike Myers and Dr. Evil. For every iconic Stephen Covey there’s a creepy Christopher Lloyd channeling Uncle Fester. Bald is tricky.
Who can detect their errors?
The slaughter was over in minutes. At first, it looked like I was winning. The side panels of the three-way mirror lied, suggesting that I had managed an even fade from the neckline to the crown, with a Tin-Tin like wisp of bangs on the front. So far, so good. I even recorded the debacle on my iPhone, so that Bald Steve Jobs would be proud of me.
The mirror’s centre panel told the whole story, though. The left fade was clearly more robust, with the clippers travelling a full three inches higher than on the right side.
The lopsided effect made it look like Tin-Tin had just lifted his head off of a sticky table after an all-night drinking bout with that black-bearded Pirate guy. It was a massacre. Gritting my teeth, I grabbed the clippers, flicked on the blades, and completed the grisly task.
I can’t detect my own errors. Pragmatism and pride, mixed in with a Pandemic dose of narcissism and the fog of Lockdown blinded me to the only sensible option I have left: age gracefully.
Glancing in the mirror, I had to admit that this wasn’t graceful. Surveying the damage. I mused that I only needed a red fez with a gold tassel and a tiny go-cart car from the local Shriner’s Club to complete the look.
Assessing the damage, I noted that my pride had taken a direct hit. I didn’t need a second opinion, but my partner was happy to share hers anyway.
You see, the Spirit has graced me with a life partner that can see Stupid heading our way in the misty distance, and usually, that Stupid is me.
Previously, this gentle saint has quietly reiterated that some heads are designed to look good without hair, and that mine isn’t one of them. So, in fairness, I had been warned.
After the debacle was fully exposed, the Love of My Life looked on the bright side, as she always does, and said, “Well, you can always put on your checkered pyjama pants and that old sweater. At least then you can go around town getting discounts”.
Now, that’s wisdom.
In the passage from today’s lectionary reading, the Psalmist gently points out that the heavens and the earth have already declared the glory of God, as revealed in both the physical universe and in the metaphysical wisdom of ten thousand years of human experience.
This historical wisdom of our species is recorded for us in our DNA, in ageless customs, in script, and in stone. Both the book of nature and the book of scripture embrace us with beauty, enfold us with love, and instruct us with compassion, generosity, and patience.
But even ancient wisdom is no match for a modern pandemic. After celebrating all of humanity’s received wisdom from the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, the Psalmist asks, “who can detect their errors?”
I understand this now, with all the certainty of a balding medieval monk. The Psalmist gets it, too. In a Pandemic, and even sometimes outside of it, people do stupid things. Like Forrest Gump says: “Stupid is as stupid does.”
Like Covid-19 itself, Pandemic Stupidity morphs and mutates into different strains. You can’t inoculate against all of them. You just have to isolate, and try to avoid doing stupid things, like cutting your own hair.
Despite our best efforts, there is always a threat that we can wander into a cloud of seasonal stupidity without our masks on. At other times, sometimes we just drop our guard and do stupid things. We’re human, after all.
We need help to avoid being stupid. Thankfully, the Psalmist offers us a way forward: prayer, and the Psalmist models the process for us. The writer admits their error, accepts responsibility, and in faith, seeks guidance to do better.
And we can–we can do better. The African-American writer Maya Angelou puts it this way:
” in crises, natural crises, human beings forget for a while their ignorances, their biases, their prejudices. For a while, neighbors help neighbors and strangers help strangers.” “Ask for what you want and be prepared to get it.” “Everyday I try to do better. See better. Say better….Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better”.
So, it’s that simple, really. Understand that these are abnormal times. Accept that life is different–more constrained, less enjoyable–under these circumstances. Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others. None of us, after all, have ever experienced this before, and we’re all learning as we go.
Accept also that most people, on most days, most of the time just want to treat people kindly and receive kindness in return.
Accept that most people are probably trying the best that they can just to get through the day without inadvertently doing dumb things.
And finally, try to recognize a stupid idea when it comes your way, and pass on it. If you’re not sure, share your brilliant plan with others you trust, then gauge their reaction, and stage your action plan based on their point of view.
Goodness, kindness, patience and gentleness might be in short supply, but we’ll never really run out. We just feel a little low sometimes.
Find your trusted Gumps, and conjure your inner Gump. Test all of your Covid-19 ‘aha’ moments against the standards of this panel of experts. If your great idea doesn’t pass the test, walk away. If you find you’re still drawn to a patently stupid idea, then “run, Forrest, run.”
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you my Lord, my rock, my redeemer.”
Reflect: What are some areas of my life and relationships that lead me into error? How can I detect my own errors? How can I get support?
Pray: “God of love, wisdom and mercy, please renew my spirit and my mind so that I can more perfectly see your wisdom and the movement of your spirit in my daily life. I pray that the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart can become increasingly more and more acceptable to you, my Lord, my rock, and my redeemer. Amen.