I am not a doctor. I would like to think that I could have been one, if only my IQ was 20 points higher and I had applied myself to study a lot more for 15 years. So, I really could have been one, which is basically the same thing. Anyway, I took a different path, one with lower IQ and study requirements, which has led me to be not a doctor, of any sort, shape or variety. This means that I have had appropriately limited opinions on the Corona Virus (COVID-19) pandemic, and continue to do so due to my already disclosed non-doctoryness. I have been amazed to see how many of my friends on Facebook suddenly have become doctors though, or are at least comfortable to speak with the authority of one because their Aunt Brenda shared a very interesting post that also has a graphic attached to it. This is key, if a post has a graphic, it is instantly authoritative. You literally cannot argue with a graphic. The other non-arguable sort of post has a picture of an exhausted, but contemplative doctor on it. You know they are a doctor because they have a stethoscope and a coat. They don’t just dish those sorts of props out for photos. I have also noticed that there are many different doctor pictures on the same authoritative posts. One I saw this morning even had a picture of a doctor that I could swear was on Grey’s Anatomy. (If you are too young to know what Grey’s Anatomy is, it is a show, a lot like The Bachelor actually, except with more hooking up and some plane crashes.)
All of this to say, I have been slow to make any sort of commentary on Corona Virus and on our required responses to it, but have had to think about it a lot as I lead frequent gatherings that are medium to large in size and can have significant public health implications as a result. My job also means that I am in regular contact with people (the job of a pastor should mean that regular contact with actual people is required, although this is unfortunately not an assumed in celebrity pastor culture). I am exposed to what they may be carrying and they are exposed to the risk of whatever lurks hidden in my internal immune system battle, which I am currently winning.
That understanding of shared risk sobers me a great deal, and it has had me thinking about and praying for wisdom these last couple of weeks. It led us a church to a response which we sent to our congregation and which we will update as we get more information and take prayerful precautions. The feedback that I received to that correspondence was so interesting and revealed that we really do struggle to hold positions in any sort of tension. The responses varied from thinking that we are overreacting in a total lack of faith to a liberal conspiracy; to questioning if we are doing enough to prevent the imminent zombie apocalypse that is about to descend on us all.
It made me realize. We don’t like to live with tension. We don’t like ambiguity. We don’t know how to embrace the word … AND. What the spread of this virus has been helpful in exposing is that we don’t know what we don’t know. It has revealed the limitations of our creatureliness in a pretty stark fashion. It is new to everyone and so we are all learning together. You would think that would eliminate our hubris, but it might be making it worse.
But, the people of God may be able to rise up and act of agents of hope and reason in a season panic and politicking. To do that though, we will need to wash our hands, and to watch our ands. Personal hygiene, it turns out, is incredibly helpful, AND … empathetic understanding is potentially society changing. We, of all people, as communities of faith ought to be able to understand and display this.
We are people of the now AND the not yet.
We are people of the cross AND the empty tomb.
We are people who believe in the seen AND the unseen.
So, below are a few “AND” positions that I feel (remember…not a doctor) the people of God ought to hold in tension and allow to govern our actions in this wild time. There is, of course, much more to be said but these have been swimming in my head.
We can acknowledge that this is both not a big deal AND a very big deal
Yes, the death rates are low compared to the flu or TB, I saw the infographic your aunt Brenda shared, and I know that the current data shows that most young people will fight the virus off without much of a fuss.
This is a very big deal for the most vulnerable members of society and that should concern us. I spoke with a very wise actual doctor friend last week and asked him if he thought we were overreacting, and he said, “Yes, and no. We are overreacting as individuals, stockpiling goods and taking care of ourselves, and we are dramatically under reacting as a society, by failing to take stringent steps towards protecting those who won’t be able to fight this off.” He went on to say, “You shouldn’t be worried about catching this. You should be worried about spreading it to those who won’t be able to fight it.”
That sounds like a particularly Christian concept to me. Considering the needs of others above my own.
We can be full of faith AND carefully cautious
I fully believe in a kind and powerful God, who is willing and able to heal. Requests for Him to do just that make up a significant part of my prayer life. AND … Part of living in the now and not yet tension of the Kingdom of God is that I still also take precautions and employ the common grace of wisdom in prevention from harm. We all do this. We wear seatbelts, take medications or natural supplements, try to eat balanced diets and practice good hygiene because it makes common sense to do so, and it is loving to those around us to do so with their health in mind.
I don’t believe that the faith- filled response only looks like one that has to ignore good input coming out on reasonable measures of infection spread mitigation, even if they seem extreme or inconvenient to us. Those responses must not be bound up in fear, but fear and caution are not the same thing. Faith and wisdom get set against each other as enemies who were never designed to be in conflict with one another.
And so, we employ big faith in prayer, in kindness and empathy to those affected in the most profound ways, in commitment to God’s Kingdom come in and through us and the way in which we respond.
We embrace wisdom from those who are experts in the field of how best to protect the most vulnerable.
We can love our neighbor AND be thoughtful in social distancing
This is where the rubber meets the road in a faith community. It looks like fear to stop gathering or to limit physical proximity and interaction, but in some instances it may be the most loving thing to do. I have fielded a few calls in the last couple of days saying, “please tell me you would never cancel services!” My question back has been, “but what if that was the most neighborly and loving thing we could do?”
There is actually good precedent on communities of faith doing exactly this by not gathering in the midst of an epidemic and instead turning their attention to other ways to love their neighbor. The key is to not just think about individual protection but about communal flourishing and care.
And so, we might need to space ourselves away from people for a season in order to not further spread this thing any more than it has already.
We can find ways to be present and helpful to the most vulnerable. We can support Asian American businesses who have bee adversely affected by racial profiling (I have heard incredibly painful stories from a friend on this.) We can buy groceries or give money to shift workers who may be losing hours of income due to canceled work. We can take a meal to first responders, doctors and nurses, who will be at the front line of this day in and day out for the next little while. We can finally reach out to organizations working with the homeless to see how we can serve the cities most vulnerable and exposed people. We can help single parents who are scrambling to make arrangements for care for their kids should the schools limit access. We can communicate regularly with the elderly and the at risk in our congregations, praying with them, laughing with them, encouraging them, seeing them. Imagine looking at aunt Brenda’s graphic if you fall in one of the categories where the statistical tower grows tall and then reading the post saying that because it is only dangerous to those people this isn’t a big deal! What if you are one of “those people?”
We can acknowledge the very real threat AND embrace a very real opportunity
I was thinking today…
What if God uses this to fracture the churches total dependence on large gatherings as the primary strategies for discipleship, spiritual formation and community?
What if this season forces us to go back to some old ways that we have forsaken because they are more difficult and much harder to control and measure?
What if the people of God embrace empathy over power, and start to employ their time, talent and treasure for the blessing of the panicked communities around them?
What if our neighbors saw in us a unique combination of hope and wisdom? Not acting foolish and not acting fearful.
What if what looks like a major threat is actually also a phenomenal opportunity for us to be the sort of people that God called His church to be?
I am not a doctor. I don’t have an infographic. I don’t know how this will all play out. I simply want to be someone who lives with the kindness and empathy of someone who doesn’t know how this virus works, but does know the sort of people we are called to be as a Kingdom community.
People of faith
People of empathy
People of wisdom
People who put the needs of others ahead of their own.
And…it isn’t a dirty word. So, wash your hands, and watch your ands. Both will help.