Friday, April 17, 2020

Our Painful Longing For Normalcy: A Grace That May Alert Us to Deeper Wounds.

Longing for normalcy may be an indication that we have been broken and lonely far longer than just during our current situation.

I got a message the other day from a Christian thinker who said that there may just be too much noise from Christian voices on social media now. Perhaps, but isn’t it just like the church to start out with godly intentions and then begin to second guess ourselves. I agree, though, that this can be an issue, when, at times, not only are there a lot of voices, but the messages of the voices are competing. 

Having said this, I am noticing something a bit different as I listen to the noise. Maybe it isn’t just noise, but harmony. I began to write this post several days ago, but got bogged down trying to explain why I not only think theologically slowing down is a good thing, but that the data is bearing out that we should. I decided to take a break from this post and to write one merely on the data and the issues the data illuminates. That way, any future posts can just refer to the previous blog post when I want to stress the seriousness of this virus. 

From that first day, I wanted to speak on solitude and had Psalm 46:10 on my heart: “Be still and know that I am God.” Wouldn’t you know it, since that verse was laid on my heart, I have seen it countless times on social media. Moreover, I have also seen it in the context of what I want to talk about: Being aware that our aversion to solitude and our desperate want for normalcy may be an indication of something broken in us. 

When I have seen these posts, I have not read or watched much farther than just the first few lines or sentences, as I am trying to hear my own thoughts at the moment, but, it is encouraging to me that so many people are hearing the same thing. It is a testimony. There is a harmony for those who are listening. I think it is divine. 


I think we can all say that we want things to be different than they are at the present moment. Moreover, I think many of us would say that we wish things were “normal.” Perhaps we should all wish this illness to be behind us, but I see a lot of consensus that going back to “normal” may not be exactly a goal worth striving for. I am part of those that feel this way. 

Regardless, many of us want life to be unimpeded by this illness, and some may wish to rush a bit too fast, because of a sense of restlessness. Whether we are stir crazy, worried about the economy, or unhappy with our leadership, the fact of the matter is that we will almost certainly be in the same situation of restricted life for several more weeks. 

Assuming we hold the course that most medical experts think is best, if you have to do this much longer, do you think you will be more settled than when this all started, accepting the inevitable, or do you think your resolve will begin to or, perhaps, continue to falter? I have felt times of great peace and times of heightened concern and anxiety. 

Do you think you will come out of all this changed for the better, or are you just looking forward to it all being over?  For the Christian, our life should, during the good and the bad, always be growing in the likeness of Christ. In other words, we cannot just ride this out until we get back to normal. That would be an abuse of our time. We might not be physically able to do much in the way of ministry, but we can all be growing by listening and abiding in God.

Yet, many of us are saying, including myself, “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.” This is, of course, a very natural response. Stability and normalcy is not a bad thing, but obsession with it, which is what might be causing some of our discomfort, can lead to less than sanctified thoughts and actions. I do not think it is pleasing to God to wish our life away, but, instead, it is honoring to find in all things reasons to press more into Him and to be shaped by what He is saying to us in every moment. 

If God is speaking to us in every moment, should we wish these moments by? Or, should we be still and listen? 

I think a lot of us are realizing that the call to, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), is much more difficult than we might have once assumed. The Psalmist is telling us to stop all the striving to overcome the world, because only God can overcome. 

Can you be still and trust God to overcome? That is not an easy question to answer right now. 

Many of us are not so much concerned with God overcoming the world (or the nations), as much as we are longing for things to just be the way they were a couple months ago. We can take Russian interferences and North Korean aggression and Iranian instability and refugee crises of all kinds. Mass shootings were starting to just become statistical analysis for some, many who are trying to explain away the numbers of this virus as well.

Can we go back to those simpler times? 

Yes, that is a bit of sarcasm, but not to simply to be morose. This, this we can all personally feel and measure for in our own lives and we don’t like it, but I fear it can merely be because it is an interference and not that it is a life taker. This situation should be giving us perspective. Do we want to simply go back to “normal”? Is it enough for you and for me to have the simpler pain and sufferings of the world that seemed a bit more distant? 

I am hoping I will not be lulled back to that Siren’s call again to allow “good enough” to be “good enough.” If you and I are privileged to come through this unharmed, then I pray to God we do not come out of this the same as the day we entered, or worse, more bitter. What will it say of a humanity or community that we weathered a pandemic only to rush back to normalcy and, once there and only once there, we were again content, or as content as we usually have been. Oh, God, have mercy. 

But, the overwhelming want for normalcy has the terrible capacity to lead us right back to this place.

Let’s explore at least one possible meaning of “I cannot wait to get back to normal” that might impede our Christian growth. What is it about normalcy that you miss? I think many of us would say that the answer is obvious that we rightfully miss each other in a time of isolation. We miss the rhythms of life to which we have grown accustomed. We might even say we miss the hustle and bustle. This just feels so lonely. 

But, let’s ask a deeper question: What do we miss in the presence of others and the presence of the crowds? Again, the answer seems easy: We all want personal interaction.What’s so wrong with that? Even the introverts of the world need personal interaction, and to think this is not true is to misunderstand introversion. We are all social creatures. So, sure, we all miss personal interactions, but, again, what is it about even this that we miss?

What if tomorrow everything was back to normal by some miraculous means that we all took for granted? How good would it feel to just go to a busy coffee shop and not speak a word, but just be surrounded by humans once again? I think it would be pretty nice, even if that was all I got. I actually enjoy sitting with a cup of coffee and studying while people move all about. There is nothing wrong with this, unless, of course, this is all we really need from each other, artificial greetings and being surrounded by the din of noise that business brings. Now, I am getting more to my concern: What if we find that much of the reason we miss people is the same reason some people find it impossible to sleep without a the drone of the television at night?

What if we miss people because we do not like being alone with ourselves, or, worse, with our God? Is the presence of other people, at least in part, a distraction of noise and motion that keeps you from really thinking about actual people and how we might serve them? In other words, do the crowds help distract us from the people that make them up? Does our business of life keep us from having to face the real questions of life and how our life might be best used? These are questions of ministry. If we never ask them, are we in ministry at all?

Being around people does not mean you are not alone. It may just make isolation unnoticeable. Perhaps, paradoxically, we enjoy being alone, but need the crowds to feel lost. Solitude exposes us before God in stillness. 

It is actually pretty easy to be lost in the crowd. 

Our culture is addicted to constant stimulation. I know that is part of what I miss about my routine. I spend a lot of time in my thoughts, but, at times, it is easier to just drown them out: In those times, I do not ride in the car in silence. I have the news on. At work, I socialize and study and write and have meetings. At the gym or on a run, I pay attention to the work or the music in my ears. I can easily come home and hop on facebook or turn on the television until it is time to eat, shower, and go to bed. 

A full day with no stillness is an easy day. For those of us that like to stay busy, this can prove a difficult moment, and while missing routine and personal contact is perfectly normal, if we cannot find any peace without such, that is a sign of a real problem.

 For those of us who are not essential, we are finding more and more time to be still, and many of us may find we do not like it. Even for those of us who do have normal quiet times, these times often have their limit. We can spend time with God, but we don’t have to spend too much time in the stillness. Quiet time can just be another part of the busyness if all we do is go through the motions.

So, think about it: Are you getting to know yourself more in this time and using the stillness to draw closer to God, or are you simply obsessing with “getting back”?  Are you replacing the distraction of busyness with the distraction of anxiety and worry. What sort of distraction is that, you may ask? Anything that keeps us from the stillness can be a distraction.

So, again I ask, why do you want to be around people? 

Will it be because you actually admire humanity and long to truly love people in person? Sure, we all have family and friends that we are close to, but what many of us are admitting is that we just want to be out in society again.Have we turned people into tools of distraction? Are we finding that objectifying people is not only something people do when they lust, but something we can do in all sorts of relationships? In our consumer society, going out is not a mere social exercise, but a way to be inundated. Everyone moving around like a heard, surrounded by marketing and flashy things, is mind numbing, and many of us like that. 

If we can get lost in the crowd, are we feeling far too exposed in solitude? 

People use to go out to shop on the weekends and dress to the nines, why? Think of all the memes of people who go to Walmart in pajamas. I am not a big fan of laughing at others, even when they have no shame. We should not take dignity from others, even if they do not afford themselves any, but that is not my point. Perhaps the lack of dressing up has a deeper meaning about where our society has headed over the years than simply Wal-Mart brings out the crazy. 

We dress up when we plan to “see” people. So, if we do not dress up and head right out into public, it means we do not really plan or want to be seen. We can go right out into society never intending to have any social interaction beyond moving through the crowd. 

Consumerism has been given a bad name in some circles for various reasons, but it is not the act of going out to shop that makes us consumeristic. Being merely consumeristic is being consumed by consumerism. It happens when we go out to shop simply to be consumed (taken in by) fleeting distraction. So, not only does going out now mean getting lost in the crowd, but also it means to have our mind lost in the distractions of objects, shiny new things. 

The reason people used to dress up to go shopping is because they had an expectation to be seen. They wanted to be seen, and not merely in the sense that they wanted to be noticed for being fashionable. No. People thought of going out into society as a way to connect, a chance to have an unscheduled conversation with whoever might be likewise out-and-about. Tomas Merton, a well known Trappist Monk, once said:

The saints are what they are, not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else…*

Before we rush back into public, maybe we should use this time to find stillness and allow God into our hearts to bring about a love we are missing, as uncomfortable as that might be. Then, when God’s love flows through us, being back in the center of people to love will be all the sweeter. 

If we come out of this and return back to a life of routine and the only thing we can say is that we are glad things are back to normal, we have wasted our time. I think many of us, including myself may find some conviction in all of this. We may be learning that, perhaps, we are not so much looking to grow in this life, but often merely seeking to be stimulated. Scripture refers to this as life in the flesh. If all we want to do is entertain ourselves, we live in the flesh, but if we truly want to connect, that is a sign of love, and love is the very reason we are here. Love of others is the answer out of our self-centered distraction. 

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:3-5).

There is a practical side to all of this. By looking to others and their concerns, we move away from the heart of sin, which is selfishness. Acts of service and affection towards others can be a means of grace by which God sanctifies His people. We are then freed from a life that needs to be satiated to a life that finds fulfillment in love, whether that love is experienced in the stillness of God’s presence or in the communion of others. A spiritual life is one that seeks love, and that is always found when we seek to truly connect with others beyond self. Love God. Love others. That is the law of love. Again, Merton says:

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love…Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name…If, therefore, I do anything or think anything or say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give me peace, or rest, or filament, or joy.*

Are you learning to become your true self as you sit in the stillness and find yourself exposed to the Love of God? Are you, like me, a bit uncomfortable in the stillness? It would be easy to feel guilty if this is the case, but what if this is always the case for those who learn to grow in sanctification? Who could ever be exposed to the Love of God in their stillness and not find places where God’s light exposes sin, which is selfishness. Instead of running from the discomfort, let it expose and change you. 

God is not trying to make you feel guilty, but if we merely run away, that is all we will ever feel. If we stay, we find that God will move into our brokenness and begin to heal it. When humans sin, it has always been our tendency to hide. What we might find is that we feel most hidden in the crowd, but now we are exposed. Don’t run. He is not in the stillness to bring you guilt, but to bring you humility and love. He is there to give you more Christ, so that Christ’s love might live and work through you and you might be more you than you have ever been.

*Merton, Thomas, New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions, 1961. Pp 57, 62

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Notes On COVID-19

NOTE ONE addresses the current data and some possible issues in the data. This data changes day-to-day. I will try to update my comments from time-to-time.

NOTE TWO briefly addresses some of my preliminary views upon arguments against current measures: “quality of life” arguments, “alternative measures” arguments, and “conspiracy theories.” 

***I am in no way an expert. All the data used is from sources that can be easily found by the general public. I am open to correction and only offer this for thought. Since this is a novel situation and newer data is coming out daily, I may find need to adjust this blog as I see fit. 

NOTE ONE: The data

Seasonal Flu and H1N1

          Mortality Rate

We are well on our way to meeting and far surpassing  the death toll of an average year of seasonal flu (from a total of eight years, the average is approximately 38,000 US deaths per year), the current estimated deaths of COVID-19 in the US being around 60,00 by mid-May, which is better than first assumed and attributed to the measures we have now taken as a society. This is admittedly virtually the same number of deaths of the highest flu year estimates of the last decade ( approximately 61,000 in 2017/18), but the highest flu year was a) a huge outlier (surpassing the next closest year of 2014/15 by 10,000 deaths) and b) a year in which no social distancing or shelter orders were given nation wide. 

Moreover, it is fact that the US death toll for this virus has far exceeded that of the most intense 12 month period of H1N1 in the US. With minimal math, the CDC's reports average out as follows: The flu mortality rate is somewhere between 0.04% to 0.1%. As of writing this blog COVID-19 official numbers on mortality rate bear out to be around 4.5%. Even if testing is inadequate and many, many more sick persons should be added to lower this percentage, the actual death toll is evidence enough that we should not think of this as another common illness. Maybe one day it will be, but it is not at the moment. 

          Rate of Infection (R0) / Morbidity Rate

The difference of the rate-of-infection between seasonal flu and coronavirus is alarming. R0 is the rate at which the virus spreads from an infected person. Currently, the assumed rate of the coronavirus, with little or no prevention measures in place, is in the range of 2.0 to 2.5. Seasonal flu is assumed to be 1.3. Taking the low number for coronavirus, a difference of .4 seems negligible. That is only because humans do not often think clearly about exponential growth. 

Taking the fairly set R0 of 1.3 of seasonal flu and the low end R0 of 2 for coronavirus, we can demonstrate the exponential spread by raising both numbers by the 10th power, which would represent ten steps from patient 0. Taking seasonal flu R0 1.3 and raising it to the 10th power (1.310) would mean that in 10 steps the virus would go from 1 person to around 14. Yet, for the coronavirus R0, 210 would suggest that in 10 steps the virus would go from 1 person to 1024. 1,000 people in ten steps is a drastic difference. (If we go with the higher number of 2.5, the number of infections goes to approximately 9,500 in just ten steps)


The same data points can be added to other, less meaningful sets of data, to make all sorts of arguments, but what is certain, unless one just does not want to research, is that these deaths are real. While no sets of data are perfect, these numbers are cause to suggest we should be proactive in some serious ways, and to be outraged by flux in real time data is unreasonable. First, the flux may only be perceived. Second, the information is coming in daily from all fifty states, all gathering data from countless local sources. 

Being surprised, for example, that doctors give more than one cause of death (COD) is not a a sign of conspiracy. Doctors have always been able to give primary, secondary, and tertiary causes of death (for example, if someone under duress due to COVID-19 actually dies of a heart attack, both are listed as a COD). This is not a conspiracy, but a sign of many layman’s ignorance to proper medical procedures. Likewise, while some reports of “non-confirmed” COVID-19 deaths being added to the overall NYC COVID-19 death toll are concerning, this is not a large scale plot by the medical community trying to unduly worry the rest of the general public. These numbers will continue to be adjusted up and down over the coming weeks. 

If we are willing to admit that the rate of illness should be higher because of inadequate testing, we also must be willing to say the same for the rate of death. That is exactly what NYC medical and governmental officials have done. Comparing the expected mortality rate of NYC to the new projections, the new adjustments does not seems to be some extraordinary inflation of the numbers. The count is not including all who have died in this time period, but those who were listed as moist likely dying of the virus without a corresponding positive test. This means that people that were known to be exposed and high risk who died before tests were available are now being counted, as they should be.

NOTE TWO: Alternative Measures:

Now that we are moving towards a proposed phase program, the below will address the theoretical idea of whether or not we could have done this differently.

Quality of Life

First, let me admit, it is simply too narrow-minded to say that all those concerned with losses in our “way of life” are merely coldhearted and self-centered, unconcerned for actual life. We know, for example, that a good economy is one factor, although certainly not a sufficient factor, for quality of life. If quality of life goes down, it can impact our lives far into the future, which might better survive and thrive in a good economy. 

Even so, we are facing a real and present threat that must supersede theoretical projections. While I understand how one might wish to consider all factors beyond the immediate threat, hard and fast, even caviler declarations have arisen, which suggest our way of life always overrides actual lives. When the only argument is that more lives will be affected than will be lost, such assertions are cold and inhumane, lacking sacrificial quality. Loss of life is almost always more tragic than loss of quality of life. 

Christians should remember that quality of life issues are what are often used to combat pro-life arguments. If we are to be consistent, we must side with life over perceived future quality. When at an award ceremony this year an actress proudly suggested she chose to terminate the life of her unborn child so that she could attain the quality of life she had been pursuing, many Christians scoffed at how selfish this statement was, and rightfully so. Consistency might demand we not demand our desired quality of life, if it means it risks the loss of life. 

Epidemiological Ineffectiveness

There is the added belief that our government is making a mistake in its handling of the situation as it pertains to epidemiology. In other words, the measures are not only economically stressful, but medically ineffective. If what these people are saying is that, while the virus is serious, there are other measures we should be trying, I will only say that the burden of proof is on these naysayers. I am not an expert, and it surprises me how many people think they are. Only time will tell if our efforts are successful, and even then, we will never actually know if we practiced the most effective measures. Initial reports, however, do suggest we are tamping down the curve and lowering morbidity rates with our current efforts. The real question is, however, are we actually lowering the mortality rate or merely delaying it? I still think we have to try to act in some way. I will further elaborate below:


The mixed signals from leadership are not helping. That is for sure. However, neither are outrageous conspiracy theories posted online as alternate “perspectives” very helpful. That our nation is looking into whether or not this could be man-made is not the conspiracy I am speaking of, by the way. Instead, I find the idea that this was a state-planned, totalitarian effort by any body in our nation, to be quite outrageous. Laymen suggesting with absolute confidence that there are better ways is destabilizing enough. The numbers suggest we have to do something, but turning this into a hyper-politicized issue will only cause some to choose to respond with ideology and not with measured thought.

Adding to disunity by saying that this virus is not a real threat is absolutely nonsense, but, as is already evident, it is not beyond the scope of widespread acceptance from ideologues who do not know what confirmation bias is or care to find out. The facts show that this illness is serious. If it were just another, mere “flu-like” illness, I wonder how to then explain the increased use of mass graves in New York or bodies being piled in spare hospital rooms in Detroit. That is antidotal, I know, but the numbers in the above section are not. 

So, what do we do?

Unless one is an expert or, at very least, a very studied and practiced researcher, proffering alternatives based on the acceptance of conspiracy or hoax theories is simply oppositional and divisive. What numbers can be researched by everyone are the ones which concern rates of illness and mortality, and these numbers can be compared to influenza and like illnesses. If we had all the time in the world, we could explore the countless theories, but the best we can do now is look at the current facts and act decisively. Since most of us are not experts, it is probably best to listen to our officials and not fringe opinions. 


I will conclude by saying, as I have before, I am not certain our measures will prove ultimately successful. There are theories of resurgence and the like. I am not arguing our government is making the best decisions. If you know me, you know I am not a blind supporter of government. Yet, I do think we have to do something. I do hope that flattening the curve, while it might not reduce the number who will get sick, will give the medical community a) time to await the production of adequate supplies, b) a better head start on research for ongoing exposure, and c) the time needed to not find themselves overwhelmed all at once. 

Regardless, I am no expert. So, I will listen to experts and those in authority. I also want to go on the record to say that I am concerned that the government might end measures too soon. I do not think the government is infallible and that there is never cause to oppose their action. But, in a society such as ours, we do this by voting, not by disobedience that puts others’ lives at risk. 

I hope that this illness does not impact us as much as the numbers suggest they could. I hope that those who look at the alarms from the medical community and scoff will get what they want in terms of lower numbers than some are assuming. But, make no mistake. This illness, as the data given in this article has already shown, has already been worse. If no more deaths happen as of this moment, this disease has already matched the average loss of lives from seasonal flu, and that is with all the measures we have taken that are never taken to mitigate flu. Sadly, this will not be the last day of deaths, and we have to continue to take this illness seriously. This is not just an academic thought exercise that is up for debate. This is a life-and-death, and any caviler attitudes in the face of such are immoral. 

Friday, April 10, 2020

Dear Pastor, Do Not Give in To “Christian” Bullying and “Lack of Faith” Claims

Easter is just a couple days away, and most of us pastors and leaders will be doing something we have never done on Easter Sunday: We will be staying home, or we will be preaching to an empty sanctuary. Easter is the greatest day of the year. In years past, I would have said, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” but that is exactly why many of us are choosing to miss. We are doing this, not for ourselves, but for the sake of a suffering world. We are, as good Christians, trying to deny pain and evil its place before those we serve, not only locally, but, by not risking spreading disease to our own, we likewise show the world we respect and love them as well. But, as in any time of great tension, when we have to make high stakes decisions, undue criticism is finding its way into our midst, whether it be by email, phone, or passive aggressive Facebook posts. I say unto you, 

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)

When this pandemic was drawing nearer and nearer, I did what I am geared to do. I studied. I went to those persons who have proven over and again in my life to be level-headed and informed to see what they were saying, and I did not like what I was seeing and hearing. My first concern was for the most vulnerable in my life. Of course, as the experts were suggesting then and now, in this case, the most vulnerable are those who are elderly, have compromised immunized systems, or both. We have a lot of elderly in our local church, but, I knew in this case, I had leaders to help me with this decision. As for my work on the Navajo Reservation, I am one of the top decision makers. I had to make a call. We were about to take a small group to the reservation, and in June I was supposed to take a group of around forty. After calling my brother, a medical doctor, and my partner in ministry, who lives on the reservation and works for the health system there, I made the call. The trips were off. I tossed and turned that whole night. I was heartbroken.

Then, our local churches had to make a decision. The facts were not as clear as they are at the moment, and I do not hold it against anyone at that time for being conflicted about the possibility of closing in-person worship. I knew what I thought was right and what my Senior Pastor thought was right, but I also knew other well-thought-out Christians were not on the same page. What if College Place closed its doors and other churches remained open, and it turned out we were wrong? Would that make us look unfaithful. But, as a pastor, I knew what I was going to fight for: I was not then, and am not all that much now, concerned about my own well-being, or those of my wife and children. We are not “at-risk,” but a great majority of the congregation we serve is. Fortunately, we did not have to plead our case, because our Bishop made the tough call for us. He was brave enough to take the blame when he could have left it up to us. 

Even so, I knew people were disappointed, and it breaks a pastor’s heart to know his or her flock is hurt and that some are disappointed in us. I was even accused of just not wanting to work, and that brought out a fleshly anger in me. I knew I was prayerfully thinking this out. I knew this would make more work on me in a lot of ways. And, what I knew (that this person who made the accusation could never know) was just how long I pleaded and wrestled with God before He gave me a local church to serve. Not wanting to come and preach on Sunday is not a part of me, not at least in this part of my life. In the two plus years I have served locally, I have only missed one Sunday of church. Even when I was not at the local church, I was on the reservation working. I only recently took a vacation with my family in which I did not leave early to be back for Sunday, not because the church I serve would not have let me off, but, because I wanted to be present as a pastor. 

Tensions were high, and a lot of my fellow Christians disagreed with me in the early phases. None should feel badly at all. I am not claiming to be smarter or wiser or more anything. I have connections that helped me be better informed early on. I think a lot of people would have felt the same if they had the same access. I was blessed, but it did feel lonely.

Now, however, the facts are much clearer. We were being told early on by some, even by very reputable sources, that this was no different than the common flu. We were reminded that H1N1 came and went as a pandemic, and we did not shut down the country. The CDC estimates that from April 2009 to April 2010, that around 12,469 deaths occurred (with a possible range of 8,868 (low)-18,306 (high)). This number is an estimate, which obviously includes all confirmed cases, but also factors in possible undiagnosed deaths from H1N1.

Today, as of typing this, 18,034 people have died a confirmed death from COVID-19. Even with self-quarantine measures in place, this disease has surpassed the estimated deaths of a year of H1N1 with no mass quarantines. With the death toll being well over 1,000 a day in the U.S., this means that by tomorrow, we will almost certainly surpass the most liberal CDC estimates of 52 weeks worth of non-quarantine H1N1 deaths (again, the high range being 18,469 EDIT: Indeed, we have now surpassed that number, just a few hours later in the same day as me writing this: 18,699). In just 16 weeks since the first of the outbreak has reached the US, COVID-19 has proven to be way worse than H1N1. Even if the numbers drop drastically in the next few days, this is still true, considering the measures of prevention we have taken that we did not with H1N1 and that we are talking confirmed vs estimated at this point. This is simply not another flu.

Yet, I am still seeing social media posts from fellow Christians calling this pandemic a “Democratic political hoax” or a “conspiracy." They stand on the graves of the dead, mass graves in New York mind you, and mock this situation. “But, the vast majority who get sick only have the most mild and sometimes no symptoms at all.” Fine. But, Christians have never been called to simply care about the majority. We are called to look out and protect the least of these. 

I think we can learn something from the “conspiracy" and “political hoax” rhetoric. We have, for far too long, practiced hyper-politicizing. When we have to make every issue fit into an ideological category, we forsake critical thinking and even ethical thinking. Because some early on in high leadership and on certain media outlets promoted this as a hoax, those who are ideologues that touted these claims can not back down, even when the leaders and media have done so. Our President, after getting better information, has changed his tone. But, the rock-ribbed ideologues, many Christian, cannot admit that they were misinformed, which was not their fault early on, but, now, is willful blindness.

As I told a fellow Christian I respect deeply early on when we did not have all the data: There was an infinite set of data out there in the beginning, and I was looking at different points of data early on that made me lean this way. If I did not have that data, I would have taken his same position. As a matter of fact, when I first heard of the Corona Virus, I assumed it would be something like Ebola, a horrible tragedy I would be privileged to watch from afar. I do not think many of us from day one said, “Oh, batten down the hatches,” and I do not blame anyone who may have been a few weeks behind me in changing his or her mind, just as I did. But, those who are trying to make pastors and Christian leaders feel guilty even now for calling off assembly are becoming more and more culpable. I find the continued promotion of conspiracy and hoax rhetoric, as well as the continued claims that we “lack faith,” to be coming close to evil, if not already there. This is becoming willful obstinance and an ethical breach of the command to love neighbor. 

I have thought about how or even if I should respond, and this blog post is my answer. I asked early on, “What am I trying to accomplish?” At first, I passed by the “hoax,” “conspiracy,” and “lack of faith” claims, because I did not want to stir a pot. I would have only been assuaging my need to respond for a sense of catharsis. However, now, I am seeing more and more people admitting they are having a hard time with all the noise and backlash. I also know that many pastors do not have the support structure that United Methodist connection provides. We have a whole network of pastors in our same boat having to weather the storm, and our episcopal leadership is having to take the flack for making the call. Sure, we feel it locally as well, but at least we have each other. 

Some leaders feel more alone. I want to say to you that if you in good faith decided to protect your flock, you have countless pastors who stand with you. Do not grow weary. As leaders, we have an added obligation to stand firm. When we start giving in to those who would bully us into risking the lives of our members for claims of lack-of-faith, we run the risk of being a part of the damaging of our collective resolve. If we do not stand firm and show that we are at peace, if we give into fear and coercion, we may make others give way too, and this will not only divide our churches, but our nation as well. We are in this together, and, as the church, we should lead the way in being a sacrificial people. 

So, what of the theological claims? I will not address them all, but I will try to address the ones I have seen that seem to be the most stinging. (Let me say I will not be addressing the “alternative” medical advice that is out there. I am not an expert; so, I am listening to the CDC’s and the Governor’s orders, and the case I am making is that this is a justifiable position for Christians. Will the government get this right. I do not know. I pray they do. So, to be clear, this is not a case for how effective the measures are. That is a different issue that can be addressed another time. Flattening the curve does make sense to me, however. This is merely a discussion against the idea that attempting to avoid the congregation being exposed to illness is an act from fear and a sign of "lack of faith.") So, back to theology:

“…not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).

The writer of Hebrews was addressing theological concerns in this letter, and the writer’s concern was that persons were not gathering together because of discrimination and tension. Some felt that others were inferior and not worth gathering with in worship. Perhaps Jewish faithful were having a hard time accepting Gentiles and vice versa. This was not a matter of the church not gathering over safety concerns. This is much more particular. It is about division in the church. Those who claim pastors are inferior for lack of faith are the ones forsaking the assembly, not because they do not wish to attend, but because they wish to meddle and divide.  

In fact, we see often in the early church, even when persecution was heading their way, they dispersed their gatherings and fled to safer places. We shall discuss this more in a moment, because I think that persecution is, perhaps, the only legitimate reason a pastor may justifiably risk the overall protection of the church (if the members are in agreement), and even then, we see, in places around the world today, Christians under persecution are still trying their best to stay safe by being hidden. Do we call their hiding a lack of faith? We who have not even bled yet should think twice before we judge the persecuted (Hebrews 12:4). 

“We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29)

Peter said this in the the Book of Acts after being told he could not proclaim the name of Jesus or preach His gospel. In this instance, Peter is suggesting God’s command to preach the Gospel overrides the command not to do so, because the two are mutually exclusive. 

We can choose to think of following the government mandates in a few ways. We can say that not gathering at the church is a lack of faith, or, we can say, because the church is not defined by the building, the church can serve in many ways. Not going to the building in large numbers can be seen as a way to protect the most vulnerable that God cares for. 

That is how I understand my role as a pastor. I am to protect the flock, and never to encourage them to place themselves in harms way, unless it is unavoidable and would compromise their faith. I have faith in God that He has asked me to lead for a reason. If we were being asked to renounce our faith or be harmed, that would be a test of faith that would need us to consider choosing a willingness to be hurt for the faith (if there were no other options). Be mindful, the church has not just understood the option to stand firm in the face of violence as the only alternative to not renouncing faith under threat. They also fled and proclaimed elsewhere. Again, I will return to Christian action in light of persecution in a moment. 

But, this is not a persecution issue. Since we are not being persecuted, I think we need to think of what Paul teaches in Romans 13:1-7. God asks us to obey the authorities and tells us it is a sin not to do so. We do see in the Book of Acts that Peter decides to disobey the authorities when they tell him he cannot preach the Gospel, but, again, here Peter is being asked not to do any ministry. We as the church can do a lot of ministry outside the building and still follow the rules that our authorities give. So, I think Romans 13 applies to us. Romans says if we disobey, then the authorities have the right to punish us. What if we listen to our authorities and have to not do church gathering for a couple of months, but do other ministry and in so doing, we preserve for future ministry? What if God is trying to get us out of our building to be faithful out in the world?

We know that people throughout the Bible showed faith by not denying God and being harmed for it. They died as martyrs, and we have the utmost respect for them as the church. But, when we know harm is coming and it is not a matter of man trying to stop us from preaching, but our standing firm is simply a matter of trying to prove faith, Jesus says we are not to test the Lord our God (Luke 4:12).  What if the test of faith is asking the question, “Can we still be faithful to be in ministry without our church building and big gatherings?” Can we do ministry in new ways for the sake of the least of these? Will we be able to say in this time, "God’s grace is sufficient when we are made weak” (2 Corinthians 12:9)?

“Running away is a sign of a lack of faith.” (Not in the Bible)

Instead the Bible says:

“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” (Acts 8:1-4)

Now, what about the persecuted? Do not the martyrs standing up for faith shame us for our fear? If we are fearful, then yes. But, if our concern is that we could protect each other and still remain faithful, then, by all means, we should. So, here in Acts, up unto this point, the church had been assembling at the synagogue, but, at this point, due to concern for their lives, they chose to disassemble and scatter. Even though they would have been justified to die for their faith, the church did not see this as the only option for “proving” faithful. Instead, they chose to preserve, even forsaking their assembly for a time, at least as long as it took them to flee to the places they would then go and preach. The martyrs did not die so that we might hang our heads low, but they sacrificed so that we might continue in ministry. 

This pandemic is sending us out. We are still preaching. We have forsaken the assembly, not out of discrimination or fear, but out of love of neighbor. Stand firm in this truth. Do not let the bullies bring you down with their overbearing yoke of religion. That is what the Pharisees did to the people of their day. Let us choose life. Let us choose love. Let us stand and have a peace in the midst of the storm. Remember that Christians set up the first hospitals, not because they lacked faith that God could heal, but they knew He could heal and heal through proper care that medical practice provides. Let us serve the medical healers by giving them the space and time they need to do their healing work. 

You are not only called to feed your sheep, but to protect them.

As for those of you who are not mandated to stay home, but stay in the work force to provide for the rest of us, you are doing your part too, and I thank you! 


Rev Tab Miller

I will add further resources as I collect them: