mixed media of cross and city and hand hold bible
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” - Isaiah 55:8-9
Honesty compels me to admit that I have been slow coming to the table to watch ghoulish spins of pandemic roulette. Not much of a worrier and somewhat cynical about government leadership and media knowledge, I confess to being a bit dubious about the magnitude of the problem. In some ways, in part due to health, I am almost a hermit. Whatever the factors involved, I was completely unprepared for my experience at the grocery store late last week. The parking lot and aisles reminded me of the day before Thanksgiving, only without food and basic necessities. Panic and hysteria, however, are not particularly trustworthy sources of information nor are speculative scenarios and often-contradictory calculations of spread and death. It was not until I listened to an extended informational phone call arranged by the Bishop and Methodist Hospital leaders and specialists that I understood and accepted the genuine reality and severity of the virus. Having confessed my original doubt, I can only say that I am truly grateful for the doctors, medical personnel, and superior medical care available to us. We are fortunate indeed.
This pandemic brings to mind similar plagues in antiquity. The Antonine plague in the second century, also called the plague of Galen after the Roman physician whose writings provide us with the best description of the disease, was probably smallpox based upon his incomplete accounts. (He evacuated Rome as the plague spread.) Without any prior exposure and significantly less medical knowledge, an estimated one-quarter to one-third of the Roman population, including the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, succumbed to disease over a fifteen-year period. In AD 251 the Cyprian plague, widely thought today to be measles, broke out and spread across the Empire, decimating the population of Rome yet again, with as many as 5,000 people per day dying when the plague peaked in the city of Rome. Alexandria, where Dionysius was Bishop at the time, lost an estimated 60% of its citizens to that plague. Dionysius wrote that not one household had survived intact, some families losing more than one member.
As horrible as these plagues were, the Christians’ response to them is what I want us to know and absorb as our own. In both centuries, Roman citizens who could evacuate did so, leaving behind family and friends in their race to seclusion and safety from the plagues. Among the pagans left in the cities and villages, at the first sign of a symptom, family members were shut out of their own homes, left in the streets with dying people and rotting bodies. Except for the Christians… The Christians took care of their own, but they also went out and provided care for the sick pagans around them. Many Christians died as they saved the lives of others, laying down their lives just as Jesus laid down His life. Because the Christians’ actions were so different and their fear of death so much less, the Church grew exponentially during and after the plagues. People were drawn to the hope, kindness, peace, and serenity born of the faith in Jesus Christ. That is who we want to be to our world today.
We have medical professionals and medical care, but we do not have any more societal love and caring than existed in the second and third centuries. Just as the Roman pagans did not have any sort of metaphysical explanation for the existence of such relentless, indiscriminate suffering, neither do the humanists, materialists (as in physical world, not worldly possessions), and secularists. While we certainly have medical explanations, the breadth and scope of suffering is disorienting and frightening, leaving people with nothing to which they can cling or in which they can trust. In the United States today, only about 55,000 ventilators are available, with another 10,000 stored in a federal cache for an emergency. We are hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer. What will we do if the virus continues to spread and there are not enough ventilators? How will people respond when needed medical care is not available? How will Christians respond? What will our message be as Christians?
If we believe with Paul that “to live is Christ and to die is gain,” then this is our moment. Make no mistake, I am not suggesting we run around and ignore directions from medical professionals and governmental leaders. What I am suggesting is that we have nothing to fear and everything to give. Christianity is fading in the western world because it is thought to be irrelevant. If you and I act like our non-Christian neighbors, then Christianity really is largely irrelevant. Christian faith becomes our free pass and consolation prize, not the life-giving Gospel of hope, love, and resurrection. We can stay safely behind closed doors, hold tight to everything we might need, and pray for all the sick and unfortunate, or we can wash our hands, don our masks, and get up and go serve the lonely and frightened.
If you are not in a high-risk group, you can pick up a grocery list and go to the store for those who are. Check with elderly in your neighborhood to see if they need help. Offer to go and get medications at the pharmacy. Volunteer to keep two or three neighborhood children, so their parents can work. Call people who are isolated because they are at high risk, just so they hear another voice. Send a card or email to people in retirement communities and nursing homes. Find out what your neighbors need, and try to locate and get it for them. Share any surplus supplies you have. There are so many things we can do, even while we still follow all medical advice. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your eyes to see needs you can meet.
Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) wrote, “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents.” Christianity certainly has opponents today, but even more view Christian faith with near-complete indifference. This is our moment to show people that Christianity is not just something we do on Sunday or with each other. Instead, lift high the Cross of Christ and follow after Him. Lay down your life because you can. This is a defining time for us. Do we truly believe that others’ lives are in greater danger than our own because they do not know our Lord? Do we believe the Gospel that calls us to deny ourselves? If it comes down to us or someone else, will we have the courage forgo the ventilator so another can live? What will our witness to Jesus Christ be?
Christians in the second and third centuries had no plan to grow the Church. They simply acted obediently to the commands and call of Jesus Christ. That is all that is asked of us, as well. Not for one second do I believe God sent this plague to destroy. God gives life. The destroyer of life is Satan. I have no idea what God is doing or will do with this global tragedy, but I do know we are not to be like non-believers in our world. If we truly believe that life is Christ and death is gain, then we are the ones who are fearless – not thoughtless or careless – but fearless, unafraid. God did not send His Son into the world to make us happy, to keep us from getting sick, or to provide us with comfort and security. He sent His Son into the world to save it, and as our Father’s children, we also should be about the business of the world’s salvation.
Our God is not unaware of the vast human suffering in our world right now. To the contrary, He is at work accomplishing His plans and purposes in spite of and in the midst of disease and death. We only have to decide if we will be faithful where we are at this moment in time. Will we lift up Christ by our love and through our actions? We are the vessels that carry the Spirit of God into the world, and we are the tools through which God works in our world. This is the Christian moment to reveal the limitless, sacrificial love of God that relentlessly seeks the lost for their salvation and blessing.
Well over a month ago, family members who live in and around east Asia were talking about the coronavirus. On a fluke, I bought a box of facemasks. If you want to go out and serve your neighbor, I’ll share my masks. I even have some gloves you can have. This is our Father’s world. He is active and busy in ways we cannot begin to comprehend, and He will accomplish far more than we imagine possible.
But He let’s us be a part of His wonders…
In Christ –
Rev. Elizabeth Moreau – © 2020