• Aarik Danielsen

The Only Question That Matters

One year ago, the world fell ill.


Questions outpaced answers since then—and they still do. These inquiries play a full-contact sport, bruising my breastbone from within.


What is this tickle in my throat? Does a flutter in the chest mean I’m sick or merely anxious? How will this trauma imprint upon the rest of my son’s life? What is it doing to me? And over and over, whether masked at the grocery store, singing outside on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve, or passing another runner on the trail: Am I safe? Am I making someone less safe?


One question dominates the discussion, asserting itself outright or sitting behind nearly every other sentiment: When will life return to normal?


In a surprising show of mercy, crisis arrives and offers chances at reckoning. Seasons of struggle spread our sins and virtues, bad habits, and best practices across a wide table and ask us to pick.

Don’t misunderstand me. These words travel the frontage roads of my brain; they even pass my lips. But I keep trying to dodge the question, clearing space to ask a better one. Whenever the world resumes its rhythms and routines, how will I be different?


In a surprising show of mercy, crisis arrives and offers chances at reckoning. Seasons of struggle spread our sins and virtues, bad habits, and best practices across a wide table and ask us to pick.


I welcome the better angels of my introverted nature—simplicity and quiet. I think I’ll take those back up.


Scanning the tabletop I find an abundance of excuses for never seeing or sticking to another soul; the erosion of relationships; indulging the impulse to stay locked inside my head with only my thoughts for company. Wary, I’ll try to leave them where they lay bare.


As much as I’m learning about myself, I know the greater reckoning curves outward. Twelve months of testimony—or, more accurately, twelve months with nothing to do but listen—tell me how many people “normal” left out of its plans before a pandemic forced us all outside of its confines. Isolation, fear, and frayed connections represent nothing new for so many wishing to be fully known and fully loved.


Since last March, I have thought more about my body and the bodies of my neighbors than ever before. I can’t go back. I won’t.


Shame on me if I return to “normal.”

Every fruit of the spirit expresses itself in relationship; each stroke of Scripture loops and leans into justice and flourishing, toward a world in which “normal” is upended by the kingdom of God, more beautiful and peculiar than we imagine. What a shame if life changes its course and I unlearn these lessons.


Shame on me if I return to “normal.” Shame if time passes and the people in my life sound out that old Jakob Dylan line: “The only difference that I see / Is you are exactly the same as you used to be.”


The rest of my life will reveal how the pandemic interrupted me, making me more or less like God. I see at least four possibilities already: two areas where differences have settled and two prayers to pray.


When everything tilts back to the status quo, I will emerge sadder. My heart harbors a minor chord which can only be resolved by the second-coming fanfare. I grieve fresh fractures in the body of Christ and the breaks I missed on X-rays long ago. Friends absorb awful messages from church people—“You are expendable.” “Your health matters less than my freedom.”—and it sends me into sorrow.


With each day’s news cycle and each trip through social media, I mark through names on a list of who’s safe for my family, who’s safe for the most vulnerable people in my life; my faith concentrated on a smaller group of people.

I will be no more or less trusting but will trust differently. The unreliable have spent 52-weeks exposing themselves; I watch them thumb the Bible’s pages, skipping past Romans 12 and “take the lead in honoring one another,” only to act as though two of God’s great questions—“Am I my brother’s keeper?” and “Who is my neighbor?”—aren’t asked of their own life. Presented with a chance to step inside Jesus’ footprints, they double down on white supremacy, church rights over Church responsibilities, and all manner of privilege.


With each day’s news cycle and each trip through social media, I mark through names on a list of who’s safe for my family, who’s safe for the most vulnerable people in my life; my faith concentrated on a smaller group of people.


In the quiet, I ask God for more attention. That holy gift opens so many doors. Tune my heart to what I need, and permit me the boldness to ask for its satisfaction. Fix my eyes past the superficial to see my neighbors as whole people, composed of bone and tissue, hope and fear. Let me observe them as they are—no more, no less; only then may I approach the answers to their prayers.


And keep me soft. The temptation persists: to return hardness with hardness. I would understand, even forgive the friend who reaches a point of no return with the world as is. But when I want to stop seeing and feeling, make me sensitive to the pain “normal” inflicts, then gentle, faithfully, and efficacious in my response.


So many questions linger. One matters most to me, and it helps to ask it two ways: How will I be different? My God, how can I stay the same?



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