No Going Back

By Rev. J.C. Austin

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

How do you measure, measure a year?

Those lyrics are the opening lines of the song “Seasons of Love” from Rent, one of the longest-running and most successful Broadway musicals in history. The show is loosely based on the opera La Bohème, but set in Manhattan in the early 1990s in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic instead of 1830s Paris and the problem of tuberculosis.

In the stage production, the song opens Act II, but in the film adaptation, they literally open the movie, which has the effect of making the entire show then, as it goes through the stories of joy and tragedy and beauty and pain, an unfolding answer to that question: how do you measure a year?

I found myself singing that song to myself a lot this week as we all began marking the one-year anniversary of the pandemic’s onset, which of course does not have one definitive start date, but it was the second week of March in which everything suddenly changed last year. And here we are, five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes later (give or take a few), struggling with the question posed by that song: how do you measure, measure such a year? And the next lines are a first pass at possible answers:

In daylights? In sunsets? In midnights? In cups of coffee?

In inches? In miles? In laughter? In strife?

In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.

How do you measure a year in the life?

The point, of course, is that there are many possibilities, many different standards, that one can use to measure a year. But which one (or ones) to choose: time? Experiences? Distances? The emotional dynamics of life?

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes is one such option; it is, of course, how many minutes there are in a year. So it’s measuring the year based on relatively short moments, which might sound pointlessly reductionist at times. But a minute is much longer than you think it is. In our culture, if you’re having dinner on a first date with someone and a full minute goes by in complete silence, it feels incredibly awkward.

If you couple that with staring in each other’s eyes, then it’s probably either one of the best or one of the worst dates ever, but more likely the latter, and you’re already thinking about how quickly you can get the check and what the odds are of this person being a serial killer. A minute is more than enough time to declare your love for someone, to tell someone that your relationship is over, to confess wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness.

It is more than enough time to ask a friend how they are doing, really; more than enough time to admit you are not really doing fine. It is more than enough time to say that a baby has been born, or that a loved one has died. And there are five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes that hold all those possibilities and more, which is why they really are “five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear,” so meaningful, so precious, because there is both an abundance of opportunity and an awareness that those minutes are finite and passing; they cannot be stopped or saved.

There is a saying that “we measure what we value, and we value what we measure.” And that’s getting us closer to an answer to the question of how we measure a year. What is it that we truly value? Is it really cups of coffee, as the song mentions? I mean, I love coffee, but that’s not my measuring standard for the meaning of a year. But how many of those cups I had with friends and loved ones is not a bad option, or even how many I had alone in moments of intentional self-care accompanied by music or a good book. You have to choose what you actually value, and then measure it. Otherwise you will value whatever you actually measure, even when you shouldn’t.

The story we heard from the book of Numbers is usually presented as a story about faithfulness: who trusts God to fulfill God’s promises about giving the Hebrew people a land in which they could be free to live as God’s people in safety and peace. And that’s not wrong, but more specifically it is about is the question of what and how to measure the dangers and possibilities before them.

Moses sends a group of men on a scouting mission from the wilderness in which they have been wandering. Specifically, they are tasked with scouting the land that God has promised to the Israelites which is currently occupied by people who have no intention of giving it up. So Moses tells them specifically what to measure:

“…see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the towns that they live in are unwalled or fortified, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be bold, and bring some of the fruit of the land.”

Forty days later, when the scouting party returns, they report on the results of their measurements. Everyone but Caleb says, “the land is pretty great, rich in soil and produce. But the people living there are large in size and numbers; their cities are heavily fortified; and there are even giants living there! (That’s what the references to “the descendants of Anak” and “the Nephilim” mean.)

Caleb, though, saw something very different. “Let’s go now and take it,” he says; “we can easily beat them.” The others double-down, though, on their negative report, now saying that the land itself devours its inhabitants, and everyone there is large, and there are giants so big that the Israelite people seemed like grasshoppers compared to the them.

What the scouts and the Israelite people are valuing here is security and certainty, and so their measuring standard is fear: how much does this make me fear for my security or our success? And what they find is a great measure of fear, to the point that the scouts are afraid not just of the dangers they have been able to see and quantify, like the size and strength of the towns.

No, they are also afraid of dangers that aren’t even real but are just projections of their own fear, like the Nephilim, mythical giants from ancient times that they couldn’t have seen more of than a pond that they interpreted as the imprint of their footsteps filled with water in the spirit of folk traditions all over the world. And the people react similarly, discarding Caleb’s promising report for the fear-soaked fever dream that the other scouts are reporting, and they begin lamenting that they ever left being slaves in Egypt and how much better it would be if they could just go back to that instead of choosing between death in the wilderness or defeat in the Promised Land.

Caleb, though, values both the opportunity for the promised future, and the integrity of God’s promises. And so his measuring standard is truth: is God’s promise true? Is the land capable of sustaining the Israelite people, and are they capable of winning it? And his answer, clearly, is yes, because he is measuring the right thing: not his own fear, but God’s own truth and trustworthiness. And that tells him that they are well able to overcome the challenges before them.

This week many people have been offering different standards of measurement to evaluate this past year of life during the pandemic. The most obvious measurement is loss: the extent of the losses we have experienced, individually and collectively. I’ve talked many times during the course of the pandemic that we have all been enduring a time of ongoing and intense grief, because grief is our response to significant loss.

And we have lost a lot. We have lost our sense of time, of predictability, of what is dangerous and what is not. Many have lost jobs and income and healthcare precisely when they needed them the most. We have lost the ability to be in physical community with one another as neighbors and friends, as families and churches. And we have lost so many, many people.

It struck me earlier this week when I was singing the song to myself that one crucial answer to the question, “how do you measure a year?” was just about three days ago, when the death toll from the pandemic literally reached five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred people. And every single one of those already more than five hundred thirty-one thousand people was a person so dear to someone: a parent, a child, a partner, a friend. Put together, that is a loss that is ultimately immeasurable: the number itself only begins to hint at the depths of it.

At the same time, others have encouraged us to measure what we have gained from the pandemic. And while it is important to stress that those gains have, in many ways, been as unevenly distributed as the losses, they are still real for many people. Being able to attend meetings in sweatpants hardly means the pandemic was worth it, but it is one of the more popular gains.

More significantly, many have felt a gain in their family connections from quarantining together over time, from a drastic reduction in the hecticness of their schedules, from the discovery of new and life-giving activities together, from hiking to bread-baking. And individuals and families and even congregations have become much more intentional and adaptable in finding ways to create and maintain community when we cannot be physically present with one another.

The problem is those measurements set up a false distinction: if you emphasize the losses, the gains seem irrelevant or even offensive; if you emphasize the gains, then it can easily sound like you’re minimizing or ignoring the profundity of the losses.

So how do you measure a year in the life, in the life of the worst pandemic in more than 100 years? The song asks that very question after naming all those different possible standards of daylight, sunset, midnight, cup of coffee, and so on: “How do you measure a year in the life?” And then they find the real answer: “How about love?” they ask, as if it just occurred to them. “How about love?” they ask again, considering it more fully. “How about love?” they ask a third time, with a brightening conviction that culminates in the affirmation: “measure in love; seasons of love.”

That, I think, is our answer as well in how to measure this past year: measure in love. Because love is big enough and strong enough to encompass and measure both loss and gain, both grief and joy, both death and life. Love is the only measure that is capable of telling the truth about what has happened to us, individually and collectively over the past year, and also capable of calling us into the future in hope.

Love assures us that wearing a mask and maintaining physical distance and getting vaccinated are things that are neither irrelevant nor gigantic threats, but rather acts of love for ourselves and even more so for our neighbors. Love inoculates us against selfishness and despair, against division and fear. And love endures even when the seasons of it change: grief, joy, hope, exhaustion are all seasons in which love remains present, because they are all seasons in which God is present with us. As the first letter of John reminds us: God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them.

So as we measure this past year, let us measure in love; as the seasons of both the year and the pandemic are changing, let us be steadfast in making them seasons of love. And as we go forward, not back, in this year to come, whatever season in which we find ourselves, we each and all have “five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear; five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes in which we can fill the year with the power and the strength and the beauty and the light of God’s love for this world and every single person in it.

So: how about love? How about love? How about love? Yes. Yes! Yes: measure in love.

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