PASTOR’S PERSPECTIVE: “Social Distancing-The End of the World As We Know It?”
Lorie Hill wrote a poem titled In Like A Lion, Out Like A Lamb. It goes like this:
“March roars in like a lion
The wind so cold
It seems to pierce
The month rolls on
And Spring draws near
And March goes out
Like a Lamb so dear”.
That was on our mind as we entered the month of March 2020. How would the weather be? In like a Lamb? Out like a Lion? We were also thinking about “bracketology” and March Madness. The Cubs and Cardinals were on our mind…who would win the rivalry this year? Most of us did not see the storm brewing on the horizon, one that had been coming our way since the last month of 2019. Hubei province, in Central China, the city of Wuhan, the Detroit City of China, was being invaded by the COVID-19 novel coronavirus. We watch reluctantly with worried eyes as over 80,000 came down with this new virus, and over 3,000 died. We watched as it spread to Iran, Italy, Spain, Europe, and now to nearly every State in our United States. But like other world pandemics-SARS, MERS, Ebola, N1H1, never in the United States of America. But we have watched this virus come in like a Lion, and it certainly doesn’t appear to go out like a Lamb. Unbelievably it has in a couple of weeks, silenced all the March Madness; Major League Baseball; Basketball; Hockey; concerts; schools; libraries; It has brought back echoes of the old REM song from 1987-“It’s The End of the World As We Know It!” America is wondering, in spite of all the voices assuring us all is well, is this a harbinger of the Apocalypse? After all is not one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse the Pale Rider of Pestilence? It brings to my mind the poem by T.S. Eliot, the Christian poet of last century, the poem Hollow Men. He writes about living in the valley of the dying stars; the hollow valley…of our lost kingdoms; the last of the meeting places; the hope of only empty men; over whom the shadow falls. Then he writes:
“This is the way the world ends…
This is the way the world ends…
This is the way the world ends…
Not with a bang-but a whimper”
Are these words prophetically coming true as a last day affirmation of Biblical truth? The crisis of recent days has certainly gotten the world’s attention. The question we have to ask and answer is “does the Church of our generation have anything relevant to say to this terrified world?” Two things are important for the Church. First, we must consider our mindset. How do we face these days we are experiencing? What kind of demeanor do we reflect to a watching world? Paul told young Timothy, that when we face the last days, he needed to remember that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and love, and of a sound mind”. (II Timothy 1:7). The word for fear, is not the normal word “phobias”-but the word “deilias”. That word always has a negative meaning in Scripture. It means “cowardice, timidity, fear of loss”. That kind of fear causes us to withdraw from the circumstances that frighten us. Paul said we should have a mind-set of a “sound-mind”- The word is “sophron”- “a mind that is in control, and fits the situation”. When the world panics in the face of a crisis, this Christian mind-set demonstrates a calmness that does not run away from the situation. Someone has defined FEAR as “FALSE -EVIDENCE -APPEARING -REAL”; FAITH as “FRIGHTENED-ALARMED- I- TRUST- HIM”. Jerry Shirley in his recent sermon entitled-AFTER SHOCK: GOING VIRAL says “Now is the time to have faith, not fear; to pray, not panic; to believe God, not blame Him; to be assured, not Angry”. That is a good mind set for our day. C.S. Lewis spoke to this mind set. He was asked how Christians should face the shadow of the atomic age after WWII. In 1948 he wrote “In one way we think too much about the atomic bomb. How are we to live in an atomic age? I am tempted to reply-as you would have lived in the 16th century when the plague visited London almost every year…or as you live in an age of cancer…in other words do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me Sir or Madam, you and all you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented…we live with the high probability that a percentage of us are going to die in unpleasant ways. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering with long faces because scientists have added one more chance of painful death to a world that already bristled with such chances. The first action was to pull ourselves together. If the bomb comes it will find us doing sensible things like praying, working, teaching, reading, playing, or chatting with our friends, not huddled together like frightened sheep thinking about bombs! They may break our bodies, (a virus can do that too) but they need not dominate our minds”. We need to have a spirit of courage not cowardice; faith not fear; prayer not panic; trust not terror. That kind of mind set will bring calm to a crisis.
A second kind of approach the Church needs, in addition to a Mind set, is one of Ministry. The prevalent watch word for the hour is “SOCIAL DISTANCING”. We are being told-cancel sports; cancel concerts; cancel school; cancel work; Avoid contact at all costs. Isolate yourselves. Flee to your castle. Pull up the drawbridge; batten down all the hatches! All the voices are encouraging the Church to close it doors for the time being! What are we to do? Christian history speaks to this issue. We need to have ears to hear! Between 250-280 A.D. a terrible plague devastated the Roman Empire. At the height of the plague, named the Cyprian plague, because he chronicled it, 5,000 people died daily in the City of Rome. Decius, the Emperor, blamed the Christians for the plague. That claim was undermined by the facts that Christians died of the plague too just like everybody else. But unlike everybody else, the Christians did not run from the plague, they stayed and cared for the victims, including their pagan neighbors. Christians had also done that a century earlier in the Antoinine plagues as well. Historian Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity, says “Christians stayed in afflicted cities, when pagan leaders and physicians fled. They cared for the victims and buried the dead”. Candida Moss, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity adds, “an epidemic that seemed like the end of the world actually promoted the spread of Christianity”. By their loving action they showed the pagan world that Christianity is worth dying for. Dionisius, a first hand witness from that era, wrote “Heedless of danger they took charge of the sick, attending to every need and ministering to them in the Name of Christ, and even departed life with them, serenely happy in spite of being infected with the disease, and accepting their pains”. Ancient Church historian Eusebius wrote: “During the plague, all day long some of the Christians tended to the dying and to their burial. Countless numbers had no one to care for them. Christians ministered to them, even bringing bread to those withered from famine. The deeds of these Christians were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians”. Julian the Apostate, the last pagan Emperor recognized the ministry of Christians to the victims of the plague. He wrote to one of the pagan priests that served under his supervision-“When it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by our priests, the followers of the impious Galilean devoted themselves to this kind of philanthropy. They supported not only their own poor and sick, but ours as well. All people see that we have neglected our people. It is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, that have done the most to increase their atheism”, (a pagan term for the Christian faith).
These are difficult days. We must not be reckless in our approach. But we must not run from the situation either. We must have a mind set of faith not fear! Then the world will see that we have a God who can be trusted. A Savior who is worth believing in. We have a faith that sustains us even in the face of illness, epidemic, and death. We must find careful ways to bridge the “social distancing” with “loving ministry” to the frightened, sick, and dying, in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. When others run away in fear, we can run to the need in faith!