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When we face a seemingly intractable challenge, where do we turn?
To the Bible first of all, as faithful Christians, where we find not just the story of God’s grace that saves us from our sins but lots of practical counsel for daily life. Are there hungry people in your community? Leave some grain at the edges of the fields for them. Are you seething with anger over someone’s insulting remarks? Don’t just sit and stew, or lash out: go and speak to her, with someone you both know and trust. Find a way to forgive and move on.
But there are times when it’s hard to find the right biblical parallel. We learn a lot about plague and pestilence in Scripture, for example. Can we learn from its pages how to cope with a global pestilence that has claimed the lives of 4.8 million people around the globe, one that appeared for a short time to be in retreat but has roared back with new vigor?
Smeared blood from a freshly slaughtered lamb on the doorframe exempted the ancient Israelites from the last of the plagues that God unleashed on their Egyptian captors. But that was a context-specific measure. And lamb on the hoof is hard to find these days.
Don’t we have a sign just as effective as lamb’s blood to protect us against the ravaging plague of Covid-19: a slip of paper recording our immunization?
Tonight when my wife and I attend the first concert my local symphony orchestra has been able to offer for two years in its usual concert hall, we will need to show that document. Audience and musicians will all be masked. We can be reasonably sure – not 100 percent, but maybe 98 percent – that the plague will not find us in our seats and wreak its havoc in our bodies.
Let me stop here before I push the parallel into absurdity. A coronavirus is a nasty but natural little piece of organic matter. Whether living or nonliving is a topic over which biologists can argue for hours. The SARS-CoV2 virus was not sent down from on high as punishment for the wicked. It developed over decades in one or another species of animal and then leaped the gulf to human hosts two years ago. Each of the vaccines that stop it in its tracks is the fruit of an incredibly focused and tightly coordinated research program, building on recent discoveries, that completed what would normally be five or ten years’ work in just one.
God didn’t launch the coronavirus, and God won’t stop it if only we ask nicely. The God whom we know created us as bearers of the divine image, endowed us with the freedom to do great good and unspeakable evil, and enfolds us in mercy and love when we mess things up and have the courage to admit. The God of the Bible is not a tit-for-tat deity who does what we ask if we have enough stars on our report cards.
And yet the God we know and worship stands with us when we suffer, offering mercy and love that are even more evident in times of pestilence. Witness the extraordinary efforts of faith-based development workers to care for the suffering, in this and every previous pandemic. Listen to the voices of those who endure a period of illness and, when their bodies and their hearts recover, refocus their lives on helping others rather than clawing to the top. Visit the hospitals and clinics created by churches to serve the sickest and most vulnerable in their communities. These are the hands and feet of God in pandemic times.
But this is still not very practical. How can our churches cope with a pandemic that we hoped would be fully in retreat by summer’s end but has come back with a vengeance? In one week in September, the United States recorded 1.1 million new confirmed cases and nearly 15,000 deaths, and its infection rates are among the highest in the world. How can we cope, in our communities and in our churches?
In the two churches where my wife and I worship, in different seasons, the response to the new resurgence has been very different. Both are in locations where virus cases have shot up fourfold since spring. Both congregations include many elderly and young children, the most vulnerable among us.
In one church, in-person worship has resumed only in the past two months, in a cautious and limited way. All worshippers – no more than 30 — and the worship leaders wear masks, even when singing. Only the pastor gets a pass to remove the mask, so those of us watching on line can understand her better.
In the other church, strict masking and distancing measures were imposed six months ago when in-person worship resumed. But then in July all the masks came off and all the pews were opened again. Given the small but non-zero risk of being carriers of breakthrough infections, my wife and I have stayed away. We are glad to see on the video feed that masks are gradually returning, but we fear for the elderly and the young kids who are still being placed needlessly at risk.
A month ago I heard a state university president interviewed on an NPR program. I didn’t download the program, so I’m reconstructing from memory, but what he said seemed a bit like a secular sermon.
“I understand why people aren’t getting the vaccine,” he observed, thoughtfully. “Some have compromised immune systems. Some think there need to be more clinical trials, and they may be right. Some believe the nonsense being spread around on social media about harmful effects of the vaccine. And some just don’t like a poke in the arm. I can understand all that, and I have some sympathy for them.
“And that’s why my university has enacted a mandate. If you want to come to campus, get vaccinated and show us proof. Otherwise, stay home.
“In our experience so far, that is very persuasive.”
Is that the answer to our quandary? Maybe, but only in part. It doesn’t help the children too young for a shot. And the sneaky new Delta variant finds its way around vaccine barriers sometimes.
But if our churches would all say, “These are the rules. Follow them, please,” we could see our way out of the pandemic much sooner. We owe at least that much to the vulnerable among us.