I Didn't Plan to Give Up This Much for Lent!

First a confession: I totally stole my title from a tweet by Andy Crouch. As soon as I read it, I started laughing and said “Exactly!” With everything that is going on with COVID-19 it is easy to forget that we are still in the season of Lent… but we shouldn’t! Embracing Lent might just help many of us through these next few weeks. Let me explain.

It really is fascinating looking at how fast everything is developing with this Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic (yes, it is officially a pandemic now). I just glanced at my last post and I find it hard to believe that it was only 15 days ago that I wrote it! We are now in an almost complete shutdown. Schools are closed, sports events are cancelled, restaurants and bars are closed (except takeout), no large gatherings are allowed, worship is going online for all churches, recreation facilities are closed, the US-Canada border is closed, and on and on. It seems like every day we get news of more closures and restrictions. San Francisco has already issued a “shelter in place” order, and we may see that here too before this is all over (before I could even finish this article I saw a news alert that ALL Californians are being told to say home!).

Life as we know it has come to a screeching halt.

Life as we know it has come to a screeching halt. Those of us that can work from home are doing it, some are still able to work with modifications, but many are simply staying at home. There is a bit of novelty to it that is… dare I say… fun? But we all know that feeling won’t last if this goes on for weeks or months. And beyond that, there is the very real concern that those we know and love could become sick or even die. And even if it isn’t someone that is close to us, we know that there are many in this world who are suffering at this moment.

I need to add a quick note here: There are those for whom this time is very much the opposite of a slowdown. Our health care workers and first responders (and others too) are busier than ever and may even be working to the point of exhaustion. This post is not primarily for them – I recognize that they are in a much different place. This post is directed at those who find themselves in a kind of “quarantine.”

So back to Lent. How can this ancient Christian practice help us now? The season of Lent is a time when many of us choose to “fast” in some form or another. We choose to cut things out of our life in order to create more space for prayer – more space for the Holy Spirit to move and speak into our lives. But now we have things being cut out of our life that are not by our choice. Even though we are notoriously good at partnering with nature to fill any vacuum in our over-scheduled lives, we are being helped in our discipline by a world that is moving at a slower pace. The way things are looking right now, for many of us the adventure of our week may be going to the supermarket or the hardware store. This lack of control can be unsettling, but it can also be a blessing. We can look at all of this as a curse, or as a potential gift.

…we are being helped in our discipline by a world that is moving at a slower pace.

My two boys are now 14 and 16. The way things are going I have no doubt that they will be telling stories for the rest of their life about the “coronavirus pandemic of 2020.” I hope that some day they will be old men sharing the story and their kids and grandkids will roll their eyes at the beginning of the well-worn tale. But what tale will they tell? Right now we all hope that it will not be a tale of sickness and death. But I also hope that it will not be a tale of fear and insecurity, or a tale simply of lost weeks and months of life.

The decisions that we all make right now determine what this break in routine will be. So why not embrace the “fast?” Take the time to pray more and wade more deeply into scripture. Look for the opportunities that come as friends and neighbors need a helping hand or a listening ear. Be present with our families, reach out in love to the lonely. Read some of those books that we have been putting off. Plant a garden. Take a walk. Avoid the temptation to make this about productivity and instead look for joy and peace. And if suffering comes? Well, that too is part of Lent, is it not? Jesus Christ suffered and died so that we might have life.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

– John 10:9

Will We Bury the Bodies?

Right now we are in the midst of another global epidemic – this one from a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Nobody knows how far this COVID-19 disease will spread, or how bad it will be, but it has arrived now in our community here in Washington and has already caused some deaths. Most likely it will be similar to other epidemics we’ve experienced in recent decades, and it will be a cause for legitimate concern, will peak, will wain, and in the end will probably cause less deaths than the Flu this winter. But right now we don’t know, and it is in that space of unknowing that fear breads.

As I write this, though I have not seen it myself, I am told that there has been a run on the grocery stores, hardware stores, warehouse stores, etc. People are stocking up and hoarding food, hand sanitizers, surgical masks, and apparently toilet paper (I admit I don’t get that last one: “It might be the end of the world! You know what we really need in order to survive? Toilet paper!). The stock market has fallen about 10%. I wouldn’t be surprised, as has happened in past times of crisis, that we will also hear that gun sales have spiked this week and that generators are sold out. There is a sense of “Every man for himself!” that seems to be spreading through the nation. As a pastor I wonder: what should a Christian response to this crisis look like?

This is not the first time that the world has faced an epidemic and it won’t be the last. In fact, this may turn into a “pandemic” before it is all over. We are, after all, much more connected globally than at any other time in the world’s history. Lately I have been reading through Jerry Sittser’s book Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World. In it, he describes how the response of Christians to a plague in the Roman Empire in AD 250 had a big impact on their witness to the love of Jesus Christ (146). Scholars estimate that up to one fifth of the population of the Roman Empire died during this plague! It was so bad, that people began leaving bodies and dying people littering the streets. One biographer from the time wrote “All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also” (Sittser 147). But while many were fleeing and hunkering down and looking after only themselves, the Christian response was different. They began to wash, wrap, and bury the bodies.

Not only did these early Christians take care of the dead, but they also took care of the sick. While they had no understating of germs and viruses like we do today, they knew that if they cared for the sick, then they were likely to get sick too, and perhaps even die themselves. They also knew, that if cared for, some of the sick would survive. Their theology developed to be something like this: If we Christians step in and care for a sick and dying person, we may be able to take their sickness from them, prevent death, and take their place in sickness and in death as Jesus has taken ours. Some miracles of healing did happen – the Spirit was at work – but the larger miracle was in the way the Christian Church became knows as the one community that would care for and love those who had nowhere else to turn – even if it was a risk to their own life and comfort. So I wonder… do we still carry this same faith and witness today?

I’m certainly not suggesting that we Christians need to begin rushing to put ourselves in harms way of this disease. We live in a different world with different ways of caring for and managing an epidemic. However, I do know that our response should be to give rather than to hoard, to live in hope rather than fear, to seek the welfare of others ahead of our own, and to be people of courage, hospitality, faith, and love. Rather than hunker down and bar the doors, we are called to reach out in the love of Jesus Christ.

“…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

2 Timothy 1:7