Two weeks ago, it wasn’t even a conversation. Now, it’s all that anyone can talk about. Everyone from politicians, to preachers, to news pundits, are all offering their commentary. The spread of this deadly virus has gone from a problem “way over there somewhere,” to a panic that has arrived at our doorstep. Schools, universities, churches, concerts, and sporting events have all closed their doors in the hope that by somehow limiting the crowds, they will limit the exposure. And all the while, there is so much that we don’t know. How did it start and when? Has it gone undetected for weeks? How many are infected? How many have been tested? How long will the threat last? When will life get back to normal? Should I stockpile supplies or just hope the stores will stay full? Is it safe to eat out? Should I work from home?
With each day, the anxiety seems to build. Most Americans can no longer dismiss the threat or calm themselves by just using more hand sanitizer like they did a few days ago, thinking they were prudent. How should we prepare? Are we being overly cautious, or not cautious enough? And, what should we do from a faith perspective? Can people of faith approach this moment with hope, compassion, and real words of comfort? Can we offer perspective and speak calm to the storm that swirls about us?
Like you, I have heard a lot of preachers say a lot of pious sounding but positively ignorant things over the past few days. Some suggest that to cancel worship services because of the virus is somehow an affront to Holy God and a betrayal of one’s faith. Not only does such a pseudo-pietistic mentality add a layer of guilt to those pastors and church leaders who truly agonize over such a decision, but it also puts a lot of people at risk, especially the elderly for whom the choice of not attending is a very real struggle. Some defiantly proclaim that with enough faith, the storm will leap over your house. One televangelist promised a miracle elixir to cure the virus… (for a small contribution, of course). Another was claiming to heal those afflicted by having viewers place their hands on the tv screen. I’m surprised that someone hasn’t suggested sprinkling a little Lysol on the doorpost of your home in true Passover fashion. Most of us can surely see through the claims of such charlatans. We have enough common sense to separate fact from fiction. So how should we respond as people of faith?
Toward the close of the New Testament book of James, these words of counsel are offered… “Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:13-14). Let me pick up on these verses about prayer and the use of anointing oil. Knowing that some interpret those words differently – and I certainly affirm everyone’s right to do so through the mysterious work of the Spirit – allow me to give my perspective. I think James is offering a couple of important words to those who are suffering. First, he commands us to pray. In the midst of any illness, suffering, or angst, prayer is certainly the starting point for any sense of recovery. We pray first, invoking the tender, compassionate, loving, and powerful intervention of God. To pray is to recognize that He is the source of all healing and that we are utterly dependent upon His involvement in our lives.
Second, James asks for the elders to also pray and use anointing oil. I believe there is power in the sharing of our concerns and in the collective strength of our petitions. It is the right thing to do, to ask others to join us in praying for our needs, our fears, and our pains. Our prayers are magnified through common petition. In the first century world, the anointing oil had two roles. It was a tangible reminder of the presence of God. Oil was used to anoint Kings, celebrate joyful moments, and aid in healing. The oil was a symbolic way of reminding people that God’s Spirit was present. But the oil also had medicinal value. It was a soothing balm that helped to heal while keeping out dangerous disease, dirt, and grime. It was one of the few medical options available at the time.
So, in my view, James was suggesting that those who were sick, should immediately call on the grace and mercy of God, acknowledging total dependency upon Him, while seeking the best medical treatment available. Surely, such an approach speaks to the present moment. From a faith perspective, here’s my advice for battling the corona virus.
First, pray… pray about your anxiety, your fears, and your situation. Pray for the safety and well-being of your family, friends, and co-workers. Ask others to join you in praying. By praying you will be reminded of the Sovereignty of God.
Second, take every reasonable precaution. Do the things that the real experts are advising you to do… wash your hands, avoid large crowds, keep a proper social distance around co-workers, clean surfaces often. If you feel sick, stay home. Don’t endanger others. In other words, be smart and use your common sense. Also, be mindful of the 24/7 overload of information. It can be a bit overwhelming. Though it is important to stay informed, reserve a little time for distraction.
Third, don’t be a hero, be a helper. You are not going to win a prize for putting yourself in harm’s way. Don’t take unnecessary risks. However, do seek ways to help others. Many are running errands for the elderly. Others are self-quarantining when they suspect they might be exposed to the virus. Some are only purchasing what they need at the store, not hoarding large quantities that keep others from having what they might need. You can also help by being supportive of medical personnel, grocery store employees, and EMS workers.
And finally, let’s stick together in this battle. As people of faith, let’s lead the way. Let’s be patient. Let’s be understanding. Let’s be kind and gracious. Let’s act like citizens of this world who are also citizens of a far greater Kingdom. And let us pray that this year’s March Madness will soon find resolution.