If you know me you know that I love movies. In particular, I’m a fan of the super hero science fiction genre. As I was ramping up to work from home during this era of the super-virus, I saw a .gif that referenced a movie that I truly love. Looking through the lens of our current situation, I went back and reviewed the clip , which comes from the first Men in Black movie, stopping after the first 50 seconds of the scene . . .
In this scene, Tommy Lee Jones’s character, Agent J, is recruiting Will Smith’s character, a future agent K, to join him at MIB. K is questioning everything he has seen and everything that he thinks he knows about the world around him. J offers him a cold assessment of society and how society behaves when faced with things around them that they can’t comprehend or understand.
If we consider our current plight, I’d say that the movie is . . . well . . . art imitating life.
Only a short time ago, we knew that our medical community could stave off this virus half a world away. Only a short time ago, we knew that in times of crisis, our government leaders could put aside bickering to heroically lead us out of a situation. Only a short time ago, we knew that our economy could withstand pretty much anything because we had a medical community and government . . . well, you get the idea.
Now, understand, I’m not taking shots at either one or these entities. Brené Brown says that I should make an assumption of positive intent . . . that we should, “work from the assumption that people are doing the best they can.” And so, I believe that those entities are doing exactly that . . . the best that they can at the moment. I should pray for our leaders — all of them — carefully supporting them. I can be supportive and still discern their choices and work to better us all in this moment in time. I can do so without being reactive and destructive. When this is over, clearly there will be a time for assessment. Until then, I should live an informed existence, listening carefully to what our leaders are telling us . . . most especially giving support to the health care folks, first responders, and other essential personnel who are on the front lines of this corona virus epidemic, of which my wife is one.
I am saying that I hope is that we can keep panic and irrational things to a minimum. Oh, the things that I read online these days tell me that we are exactly as Agent K says in the clip, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals.”
What, then, do we do to ground us in our faith in a calm and informed way?
I start with the historic aspects of faith. The Shema ( literally translate as “hear”) is the Hebrew word that begins the most important prayer in Judaism. It is found in Deuteronomy 6:4. The whole Shema prayer, which includes verses 4-9, is spoken daily in the Jewish tradition.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (NRSV)
The Shema is taken literally by the Hebrew people. It is rolled up and inserted in a container on the front doors of many Jewish homes in something called a Mezuzah. A Mezuzah serves as a symbol to everyone else that this particular dwelling is constituted as a Jewish household, operating by a special set of rules, rituals, and beliefs. As a part of the practices in that household, the Shema is recited several times a day. It is said to make sure that they, as a people, never forget who is the focus of their lives and how they are to remind themselves to stay focused.
The Shema prayer was so influential and important that Jesus used it as the beginning of His answer to the “greatest commandment” question in Mark 12:28–30. When Jesus began His answer with the Shema prayer, Jesus acknowledged the Lord God as most important.
As we navigate this season of stress, I invite you to not step into the panic, even though it may be all around you. Rather, if you feel yourself giving in to the panic and street, insert your name into the first parts of the Shema and pray,
“Hear, O ____________: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.”
As we all “imagine what we may know tomorrow,” may we all remember who is our focus — the Lord our God.
Here’s a prayer that I found online. that might help us be mindful of others and not focus on our own stresses. Let us pray . . .
May we who are merely inconvenienced remember those whose lives are at stake.
May we who have no risk factors remember those most vulnerable.
May we who have the luxury of working from home remember those who must choose between preserving their health and making their rent.
May we who have the flexibility to care for our children when their schools close remember those who have no options.
May we who have to cancel our trips remember those who have no safe place to go.
May we who are losing our margin money in the tumult of the economic market remember those who have no margin at all.
May we who settle in for a quarantine at home remember those who have no home.
As fear grips our country, let us choose love.
And during this time when we may not be able to physically wrap our arms around each other, let us yet find ways to be the loving embrace of God to our neighbors. Amen.
– Submitted by Fr. Michael Graham, S.J.
NOTE: I wrote this to be used as the devotion for our Zoom Chancel Choir gathering on Wednesday, March 25, 2020.