Saturday, March 14, 2020

Love in a Time of Coronavirus

I confess that when the COVID-19 pandemic began I agreed with President Trump. That should have been a warning sign right there. I thought it was no big deal. It was just another virus to deal with – like the seasonal flu and the common cold. No need to panic. People were overreacting. The media was overblowing things – as usual.

But as I became more informed, I realized the seriousness of the situation. Even though I had stopped watching the evening news months ago, I decided to tune in to see what was happening in Medialand. I was shocked at the video footage. I asked my daughter in Pittsburgh how things were out there. She says that people are freaking out in western Pennsylvania. Store shelves are empty of essentials. People are sheltering in place. I felt like I was in a dystopian film!

Then yesterday we went to the grocery store to pick up a few items for the weekend. Our daughter-in-law asked us to pick up some toilet paper for them. The store was crowded, and the whole aisle of toilet paper was completely empty! We had to go to three stores to find some.

What the heck is going on? Do these bathroom tissue hoarders know something I do not? Are our personal hygiene habits in danger from the Chinese or the Europeans? Are we all going to be forced to convert to bidets?  Is this a democratic socialist plot against American values? I did a little more research. Nope, bathroom protocol has nothing to do with COVID-19.

Seriously now, I know it is a serious situation. I take the recommended precautions. From what I can discern I am pretty safe living in the woods of New Hampshire. My grandkids are too young to be seriously affected. My adult children are in good health. Even though I am nearly seventy years old and therefore in a greater risk category, I am in excellent health – as is my wife. I am not worrying.

The more I research it, the more I realize that this is really about those in the highest risk category, the elderly and those with serious health conditions. The rest of us take reasonable precautions not for ourselves but for them – the most vulnerable of our population – who need to be protected by us. It is a matter of love and compassion, more than self-interest. That is why we do what the health professionals recommend.

Think of the people affected indirectly by this crisis. The working poor, who cannot afford childcare when schools are canceled. Those who cannot afford to miss work because it means going without a paycheck. Minimum wage earners in the service industry are particularly affected by this pandemic. Healthcare workers on the front lines are at risk. The list goes on. That is why the bipartisan agreement announced by the president is necessary.

I am particularly watching the response of churches. Some churches are canceling worship services, following the lead of states that have canceled public schools. The governor of Kentucky – where I went to seminary and served as a pastor - has asked all churches in that state to cancel worship. Italy and South Korea have done the same. The Mormon Church has canceled services worldwide.

Holy sites in the Holy Land have closed. My Baptist denomination in New Hampshire and Vermont has canceled its regional convention for next weekend. Restrictions concerning the Lord’s Supper are handed down. Fist bumps and elbow bumps have replaced handshakes. Even my ever-hugging wife has stopped embracing people at church. That is how I know it is serious!

This time of Coronavirus is an opportunity for churches to show society what it means to be followers of Jesus, who was notorious in his time for ministering to the “unclean.” Although we need to protect ourselves from infection and thereby protect others, of equal concern should be the other physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of people. Especially the most isolated and fearful.

In other words this pandemic is an opportunity for ministry. Let’s not waste it. During the worst crises of history - even the Bubonic Plague of Europe - churches reached out. And this coronavirus is no Black Death. This is a time for compassion. It is a time for faith and love – not fear. As the old song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

Maybe if churches take the lead by offering a distinctive, loving response to this crisis, society will take notice of the followers of Jesus. Perhaps this is part of the solution to declining church attendance. Maybe this is the opportunity we have been praying for - to show the world what Christians are like. Or we could just hunker down and wait it out.  At least we have plenty of toilet paper.