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All of a sudden

Sometimes important events happen not with a whimper but a bang

In 2007 I went to work as usual at the seminary café I’d been managing since after my husband died in 1999. I was prepping for the lunch crowd while listening to the radio when suddenly two men came through the door and said I had to leave—right away. The 1898 former gatehouse, former classroom building, former study lounge was not strong enough to support the weight of the bookstore above the kitchen, said the urgent building inspectors. So my meats and cheeses sliced, and my chili and kielbasa underway, I was unceremoniously out on the curb.

I never returned.

The morning’s local newspaper as I pen these words announces the governor’s decision to close all schools in the state for the rest of the year. This makes me remember the café closing, as I am imagining one day a month ago that the children carried their backpacks off to the bus stops after their breakfasts, never knowing it would be the last day they would perform that whole routine in the 2019-2020 year.

Back in 1969 our high-school yearbook had a photo of the spring school dance with the following lachrymose text: “This is the way the ball will end, not with a bang but a whimper,” derived (with liberties taken) from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men,” which closes: “This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”

I know what Eliot means, but sometimes things end with a bang. Sometimes they don’t just trail off nice and slow. At pains to depict the frequent suddenness of life events, the Bible pinpoints the precise year, month, and day that blue skies broke open with a worldwide deluge, after which life on earth would never be the same: “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11).

Failure to factor in sudden changes can be fatal. As when the rich man with the new barn for his bumper crop died in the prime of life the very day he mused, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). Turns out his plans were based on faulty assumptions. And as the lately renowned Dr. Anthony Fauci startlingly admitted at a national press conference, a theory is only as good as the assumptions it is founded on.

I am old enough to remember the generation of my grandparents who diligently, if not obsessively, factored in sudden change, always the negative kind. The downside of that bent of mind is that such a man “never asks himself, ‘For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?’” (Ecclesiastes 4:8). The upside is he understands that “children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children” (2 Corinthians 12:14).

At a party in New York a woman described to me a friend of hers as “rent poor,” a depressing term for people who pay so much for the privilege of living in the Upper East Side that they eat mac and cheese to be able to afford it. My own anecdotal impression is that members of the current generation, departing from their elders’ virtue of thrift, have left no wiggle room in their lives for the unexpected broken appliance, leaky roof, or termites.

Worse than financial unpreparedness is spiritual. “While people are saying, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them … and they will not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3). Worse than a virus will be the virulence of unconfessed sin. For some the day will be a terror: “Alas! Alas! You great city …! For in a single hour your judgment has come” (Revelation 18:10). For others, like the five ready virgins when the bridegroom appears, that day cannot come soon enough.