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COVID found its way into my body last week for the first time (at least that I know of). Probably a national gathering of folks in Indianapolis the end of the week before my positive test is where I and a few colleagues picked the virus up. I could not help but note that my positive test came almost to the day of what was the three-year anniversary of the initial COVID lockdowns in March 2020.
When I think back to those early days of this pandemic in 2020, I recall that like most people I thought it would blow over, be contained, be finished fairly soon. It was hard to imagine the massive disruptions we all felt lasting more than a few weeks. When we had to cancel our spring break plans for the first week of April 2020, we immediately re-booked for early August that year on the assumption that surely by then . . .
So had someone in March 2020 told me that COVID would still be a significant enough “thing” that I would catch the virus for the first time fully three whole years later, I might have fainted dead away out of the sheer dread and shock of the pandemic going on that long.
Of course, a few weeks into all that in the spring of 2020 someone gave me what turned out to be a highly prescient article by Andy Crouch in which Crouch said COVID would not be like a bad winter storm, a really severe winter blizzard, or even an unusually bad single winter season. COVID, Crouch observed, was going to introduce a mini Ice Age and nothing was likely to be the same for a very long while to come. Maybe some things would in fact never be quite the same (since Ice Ages tend to reshape landscapes).
That article made me almost despairing in the moment. At the time I was experiencing what millions were feeling and it was captured by a meme that made the rounds on social media in early May 2020. The meme noted “In 2020: February had 29 days. March had 245 days. April had 393 days.” Given what felt like the elongation of time while stuck isolated at home, Crouch’s suggested mini Ice Age felt crushing.
Of course, the pandemic has continued its unmerry course but as time went on, things did return. Going to a restaurant, taking a trip, staying at hotels, gathering with friends, being back in classrooms with actual students: some semblance of normal came back even if—as my recent conference in Indianapolis proved—we are all going to keep getting this virus now and again for perhaps the foreseeable future. And according to the COVID dashboards I look at, around 300 people in the U.S. are still dying daily of COVID.
When anniversaries come, we often make multiples of five the ones to which we pay more heed. Fifth, tenth, and twenty-fifth anniversaries usually get more attention than fourth or seventh anniversaries. Yet the three-year COVID anniversary this month has been getting attention from people well beyond me.
A recent article suggested that around the world and here in the U.S., including at the state level, governments and officials are already preparing for the next pandemic (O less than felicitous thought!) but not quite as one might expect. Mostly the new rules or legislation surround all the things we will not do the next time. And mostly that list includes pretty much everything we did do three years ago. In fact, surveys have shown that even when asked about a virus or illness significantly more deadly than COVID and perhaps even one with a far higher chance to kill children, people still say they would never put up with closing schools again or shuttering businesses even for a season or most all other measures some found to be a violation of personal liberty. (And lest we forget just how upset some were over COVID restrictions, I would direct your attention to the men now sitting in jail for many years to come who hatched a plan to kill the governor of my state over precisely this.)
In my little corner of the world the focus is on whether there would ever be a public health threat that would prudently require suspending worship services in person for a brief while again. Post-COVD, congregations are now ready to pivot to online services. If a given congregation did not have any experience with or equipment for going virtual before the spring of 2020, they almost all do now and so throwing that switch again could happen in a snap. Most are still doing it every week already for those unable to come in person.
But even so many say “Never Again” to anything like that no matter what the threat to public health and even the health of children might be. On the one hand some of this is understandable: in an effort to grope through the panicked darkness of the unknown three years ago, no doubt things were tried that did not work short-term or long-term and that we would be wise either not to try again in the face of something similar or to modulate significantly. That seems like proper and normal learning from mistakes.
As one commentator put it recently, however, what does not seem so proper is legislation or new rules that quite literally tie our hands in advance before even being able to assess a particular threat in the future. That seems far more the proverbial “baby with the bath water” response and seems decidedly unwise.
In the church, one need not inquire far or talk long to some before bumping up against the lingering angry—at times it feels more like fury—that some still feel vis-à-vis the government mandating also churches suspend for a time. Some still frame it as nothing less than political persecution (which in a world where actual persecution of Christian believers happens all the time strikes me as an example of unloving and uncompassionate overreach and thoughtless rhetoric / posturing).
Three years ago as the months unfolded into 2020 a lot of pastors were saddened to see that it seemed for some members of their churches, neighbor love and being willing to sacrifice for the wellbeing of others took a back seat to an all-American entitlement to rights and freedoms. Not a few congregations split asunder over this stuff and not a few pastors left even long-term pastorates from the fallout of it all (even as in some congregations people in the pews also suffered under the ministrations of pastors who overtly politicized everything and ran overtop of those who demurred). Now three years on and with some already posturing to let freedom ring again next time whether or not it represents neighbor love or sheer prudence, one wonders what we have actually learned in also the spiritual realms that all of this has been touching on and slamming into since those early uncertain days in March 2020.
Life is intriguing and our ability to adjust is miraculous, if disturbing at times. Three years ago today, our congregation had been closed for 5 or so days, we were trying to figure out what zoom worship would look like and how to make it look as good as possible. People settled into online worship, and so many have never come back. I’ve had dozens, maybe close to hundreds of conversations with minister, rabbis, Imams, and all of them report, the ability to adjust, meaning never return to worship in person. As for other adjustments, in NJ there had been 16 total deaths (that we were sure of) so far that year. Now, we have 300 deaths every day. That’s around 110,000 deaths from Covid this year. No one blinks an eye. It is the new normal. That’s about 1/3 of the total deaths in the US for 2020, and we’re all cool with it, or at least don’t think about it. We are an amazing animal. Michael Lewis’ book, The Premonition, might be the best read for what happened. Lives lost of so many people is the worst thing lost in this pandemic, but a second significant loss might be the reputation and real work of the CDC, much of it well-earned, some of it foisted upon it. I still wonder how much better we could have handled this, maybe a little, maybe a lot, maybe not at all, but I know this, the reputation of the “church” at least in my corner of the world took a bit hit, and that is very unfortunate, even as most of our churches did “the right” thing.
Thanks for the lessons learned. I’m guessing we’re still not done.
Thanks, Rodney: We received a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment–along with 30 other institutions late last year–and a primary focus of our program the next 5 years is sorting out and finding a path forward in the wake of so many COVID-related changes. The focus of our work this first year of the grant is squarely on Hybrid Worship/Preaching and what to do in the wake of this new reality.
Our church experienced a measure of creativity and cooperative spirit exhibited in many forms, from using Zoom for meetings and groups as well as for worship, to arranging for outdoor services in summer months (what a joy to ride my bike 11 miles through forest preserve trails to church, and listen to music/liturgy/preaching, while sitting under a tree!). Our council relied on congregation members who were in medical professions, and several biology professors, who together served as an advisory group, to help make decisions about when to shut down, when to re-open, building safety issues, personal space issues, masking, etc. The vast majority of our congregation have received vaccines and boosters along the recommended schedules. In general, the crisis was handled well. We did lose a handful of members who disagreed with our following state / CDC guidelines; we did lose members who just never returned; we still have a number who keep contact via livestream/recorded services. But—we did it; we made it through—praise the Lord! Our lesson learned was that we love our church, our pastor, our gifted leadership, and our fellow congregants. We kept up in giving and in serving our mission and community causes. The only drama experienced was in doing the best we could with the knowledge and advice and means we had to keep everyone safe and well and inspired. The irony is that we all now face a challenge worse than the pandemic, as it seems the Puritans will be having their way with the denomination and will do more damage than the Covid virus, to drive people away from each other and from church connectedness. That will be a hard lesson to endure, if anything is to be learned from it.