If you’ve had the pleasure of going into a supermarket recently you might have noticed what fear looks like. Empty shelves and carts overflowing with toilet paper. Someone recently did a little math on how much toilet paper a person uses in a normal period. Let’s just say it doesn’t merit two shopping carts full.
I met a woman yesterday who actually ran out of TP and went to the store to buy some. This is normal behavior. But when she got to CVS, there was none to be found. The shelves were empty. She went to other stores and discovered the same thing. Apparently, she was unaware that people thought toilet paper, and not soap, was the best way to combat Covid-19. Like any decent human being would, I offered her a roll or two. She, being human too, she graciously declined.
I’ve been to different countries all over the world, and trust me toilet paper is a luxury. But it’s not gold. It’s not worth hoarding it hoping to corner the market and get rich by selling it in the black market. And it doesn’t stop the spread of viruses or kill them like washing your hands can.
As we stood in a line to get into Trader Joe’s, there was a sense of calm and peace that was present with our group. Yet there was also an uneasy air of panic and fear floating about. It ranged from “Don’t touch me” to “Oh man, I have an itch on my nose but I’m afraid to scratch it because what if they think I’m sick and won’t let me in the store. I need buttermilk, damnit!”
I watched people push carts past my line packed with reusable bags that were filled with food and I began to fear the worst. What if there were no buttermilk? What would be the purpose for standing in line with all these potential sick people if my wife could make Irish soda bread for a St. Patrick’s Day party that we had to cancel?
(On a side note: we did make multiple trips to the supermarket to stock up on corned beef. Now that there’s no party we should be fine with meat for a year. Having said this, let’s not negate what I am writing. Seriously, let’s just forget I said anything about the 45 pounds of corned beef that is taking up valuable buttermilk space in the fridge.)
As I stood there, watching people shuffle out of the store with what you would have thought were bags of money, I had a sense of calm in me because I knew that the last thing people run out to buy during a pandemic is buttermilk. That calm, however, lasted only until my group was allowed to go inside the store and saw all the empty shelves.
I hurried to the dairy section, which was like carefully crossing a mine field while sneezy, snot-dripping snipers try to take you out. The section wasn’t as bad as the rest of the store. It was filled with perishables whose shelf life was quickly ticking away. I felt some relief when I saw that there was sill chocolate milk, coconut milk, silk milk, and even half and half. But as my eyes glanced over all the different containers, my heart began to palpitate. There was no buttermilk. Are you kidding me?
I stood there quivering and shaking, unsure of what I would do or what I would tell my wife or the doctor who would have to eventually break the bad news to my family that I would have to be sequestered for two weeks in my own private room and bath. Yet, as I stood there among the people scavenging for the last soy sausages, something wonderful happened. Right where the buttermilk should have been, two people reached for the same thing at the exact same time. Their hands collided but the world didn’t end. And what was it that they were reaching for? Unsalted butter. Yuck.
In the pandemonium of a pandemic we must set our priorities right. Life is too short for unsalted butter. Life is also too short to allow fear to take over control of who you are. Both of these people, two strangers whose hands have touched, stopped dead in their tracks to acknowledge the other and exchange apologies.
For just a moment, there was a bit of human decency in the chaos. While others were grabbing what they could get their hands on, these two just graciously offered the last remaining box of unsalted butter to the other. Yes, it was unsalted butter, but it was also a commodity that meant something to them both, but it wasn’t going to define who they were. They were human beings who chose to behave like human beings.
Their action reminded me of something I had recently read in Leviticus. Among the many words pertaining to the way we ought to conduct ourselves during holy festivals is a great little verse about sharing our resources with others. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 23:22).
The gist of the passage is this: don’t hoard, even what is rightfully yours to hoard. Leave a little something for those who are hungry - specifically the poor, and those without a family or community to help out in hard times. They need to eat too. Even though most of us are not farmers, I think this passage speaks to us today; especially in this trying and testing time.
When you’re shopping during a pandemic, don’t go in full-blown fear mode or worry that you won’t have enough. Just buy what you need and leave the rest for others. This takes faith and trust, I know. It’s easy to fear and harder to trust - not only God but each other. But I recently read that the most used one liner in the Bible is “Do not fear” which I think puts our tendency to hoard toilet paper (and corned beef) in perspective. Do not fear but leave some for those who need it.
Jesus often taught us how to share the blessings we have. Think about the miracle of the fish and the loaves that’s found in the gospels. We can debate whether it was a miracle or not. Did Jesus say some holy words and suddenly the few pieces of fish and bread that they took from a small boy produced enough food to feed thousands of hungry people? It’s possible. Or were the hearts of those gathered there that day changed when they saw a small child share all that he had so people could eat? That possible too. Either way, Jesus and the boy shared what they had with those who were there.
In this story, like so many others, Jesus blessed the food not only with words, but with action too. He took what he had and gave it to those who had none. I like to think those who watched Jesus and the little boy do this had a change of heart. Instead of hoarding their food for themselves, they took what they needed then passed the meats and cheeses to those around them. And soon, the great feast began to spread like the joy and well-being that followed. The kingdom of heaven is like a great banquet, a marvelous feast where everyone is invited to the table.
This is important to note because later on Jesus will quote from Leviticus when he reminds his disciples that “the poor will always be among us.” This is true for those who are financially poor as well as those who are poor in spirit. Where there is poverty, fear will always be present. It creeps in wherever a person’s faith is impoverished, or emotional support is empty, or when joy is diminished. Jesus reminds us that it is imperative that we share what we have to those who have none.
If we can learn anything from this pandemic, might it be this. Viruses spread from person to person which can have a major impact on an individual as well as a community, a country, and the world at large. Fear also has the ability to do the same. But just as there is an antidote to counter a virus and diminish its powers, there is also an antidote to stopping fear in its tracks. It’s called love.
Instead of spreading fear, let us focus on spreading love like a virus. Let us go and infect the world with forgiveness, mercy, grace and joy. Let us offer the hand of peace so we can pass it to on one another.
I suspect people wouldn’t mind catching a little love and peace and joy in their lives. In fact, I doubt anyone would mind standing in line for it. The blessings we are given cost us nothing. But more importantly, supplies of it will never run out as long as we stay calm and love one another.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”