The Pandemic in Perspective

May 2, 2020

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.

It was early March 2020. A colleague at InterVarsity Press–where I was working–was returning from a conference on the West Coast. She was flying back to O’Hare from LAX and as she travelled she was updating us on her progress on Slack.

News was beginning to trickle out of parts of China about a virulent new virus that was causing the City of Wuhan–with its population of 11M–to be ‘locked down.’ 

There were stories of people being literally shut up in their apartment buildings by soldiers who welded the doors closed. 

There were descriptions of ‘wet markets’–supposedly partially to blame for the spread of the virus–with fish, fowl, and other types of animals for sale and slaughter.

And as my friend tried to get back to Chicagoland, we heard from her about the thousands of people getting stock in O’Hare as people started to try to get back home from their trips earlier than planned in anticipation of something bad happening. Perhaps some of you were travelling around that time and experienced something similar.

People started talking about needing to wear facemasks. Restaurants started to close or offer items for pick up only. And then, around March 10 or 11 our children’s school district went to online only education–an option that those killjoys had already developed so that kids could keep learning on what used to be called ‘snow days.’ And it seemed kind of fun, at first. Didn’t it? 

What could be more fun than schooling, working, and working at home? 

Somewhere between day 180 and 365 most all of us had a pretty significant list of things that were wrong about it. 

This pandemic changed everything. 

And it changed nothing. 

When I was a kid, I used to wonder what it was like to live through the war–by which I mean the Second World War. 

My Dad was a little boy of five or six as the war came to an end. And he experienced some of the drama of living in World War 2 Britain–air raids, the blackout, rationing, and the like. 

Late in the War, Britain was being bombed periodically but not with the frequency of the early war. Every night every home had to close out every bit of light  by using thick blackout curtains so that the German bombers wouldn’t be able to identify landmarks. Rationing was strict and pretty austere.

But I imagine that most days seemed pretty dull. Marked by the regular rhythm of getting up and going to school and to work. Doing the shopping. Washing clothes. The hum drum stuff of everyday, ordinary life.

War–or so I’ve been told–is hours of monotony punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

And our war against COVID 19 — if we could call it that–has been much the same. 2020 and 2021 have to be most singularly boring period of time for most of us. Our lives shrunk down to the metes and bounds of our property and the four walls of our homes. 

Flights out of O’Hare, for example, fell by more than half between 2019 and 2020. And those of you who are in the hospitality industry have felt acutely the pain of reduced travel and eating out, etc.

Wonderful vacations, cancelled or postponed indefinitely. 

Childrens or grandchildren’s special events, missed.

Loved-ones seen only across the pixels of a computer screen or as a voice on the end of the phone line.

Funerals you were unable to attend. Weddings seen only across the internet. 

And yet, in the midst of all of this spectacular monotony, some pretty spectacularly and revolutionary things happened–as often happens, historically, during these sorts of periods of upheaval and disruption.

We saw protests–both violent and non-violent–about several important social issues. 

We saw politicians rise and fall, as they always do.

There seemed to be a never-ending stream of news coming across our Tvs and our computers and our phones, and we struggled to keep up with it. 

Opinions–even within a body of believers like our own–diverged on COVID precautions, singing, opening the building, etc., etc., etc. 

For a year with few activities actually happening, it has to be the most remarkably exhausting period of time I have ever experienced.

And because these sorts of events change everything and change nothing it can be easy to simply survive them and not pause to reflect on what, if anything, we have learned during it. After all, we’ve all spent a lot of time learning to do new things: watching worship on Facebook or Youtube, ordering grocery delivery from Instacart, and trying to figure out how, when, and where to get a vaccine.

So, how do we wrestle with the Pandemic and get some perspective on it and the impact that it has had on us and on our society?

What impact will it have on the church and on this church next week, next month, and next year? I don’t know, but I made a list in the spirit of Ecclesiastes of some of the things we’ve been able to learn or, perhaps, realized that we need to learn, in light of this season in our lives.

  1. Brought real suffering into our lives.

We tend to think of suffering as something that begins instantly and then last for a season then goes away. Perhaps we lose our job and we find, at first, that we’re distraught and then, in time, the pain lessens. 

The pandemic has offered us something rather different than this. We have experienced long term, low grade suffering. And we’re not used to that. Things might have been great for us prior to the pandemic but we pretty much knew what to expect out of life. All of that has changed and changed repeatedly–it has evolved.

And part of the suffering is keeping up with the changes in guidance and opinion. It’s trying to sort the truth from the lies, the prudence from the folly. That takes time and it takes emotional energy. And so don’t be surprised if you cannot remember a time when you’ve felt quite so exhausted from doing so very little. 

  1. Exploded the myth of control.

This isn’t the first disease that has affected life in the US. When our daughter Eliza was born in 2010 the H1N1 strain of the flu meant that our son couldn’t come and meet his baby sister in the hospital because of the precautions that were being taken.

We’ve seen swine flu and avian flu, but none of them seem to have been able to cause such a great disruption to the entire globe as COVID-19 has done. It’s been like a giant wave of misery rolling around the globe.

Early on, I felt pretty sure that things would be back to normal in about a month. Wrong. They’re still not normal. And we’ve lost–or perhaps we’re losing–the illusion that we’re in control and that we can do what we like when we like and how we like. 

The amount of control we have over ourselves, our destiny, the created order–you name it–is actually significantly less than we like to think. 

  1. Revealed some of our presuppositions about life.

The pandemic has also exposed some of the things that we assume or take for granted in our outlook on the world–our presuppositions.

The biggest of these is autonomy. We don’t usually say autonomy, we tend to say “freedom.” That’s why there have been protests about face coverings and restaurant closings and church gathering limitations. 

At the end of the day, it’s because we believe that we have the right to do precisely as we wish. We believe that we should be able to follow our desires without respect to the impact that those actions might have upon others.

And this is, at least to me, a profoundly un-Christian way to think. The New Testament repeatedly counsels to consider the needs of others as more significant, not less, than our own needs. 

To my mind, wearing a mask or getting the vaccine today, is like digging for victory in WW2. It’s something we can do to serve the greater good.

  1. Speeded some changes in our congregation like using technology, for example.

Some things have sped up during the pandemic. Like, for example, the use of technology in worship. And I’m incredibly grateful for the hard work over a long season that our tech team has put in so that we can share worship with those who are prevented from joining us here in the sanctuary.

It’s not really clear, long term, what the impact of virtual worship will be on church life in the USA. In his book Technopolpy, the social critic Neil Postman suggests that the power of technology is its ability to make all that came before it irrelevant. 

You invent the telephone and, almost immediately, the telegraph is dead in the water. 

You invent the car and the need for horses goes away.

In other words, technology tends to kill its rivals. And so that’s why noone–at least under a certain age, which I will not disclose–uses the Yellow Pages or the White Pages. It’s quicker and easier to Google.

Broadcasting services across the internet will surely have an impact on Christianity, but it remains to be seen exactly what that will be. 

And it’s my conviction that our digital ministry should always be something that supports our in-person worship rather than the other way around. 

  1. Slowed down other changes, like forming a PNC. 

A year and a half ago I would have expected you to be close to getting a permanent pastor by now. But the pandemic slowed that down. 

I’m not sure that that’s good or bad, but it just is. And it’s often true that God works in ways that baffle us.

Congregations are always tempted–and understandably so–to rush to get another installed pastor. We tend to want to get back to normal as soon as possible. 

But, ironically, there are as many versions of “normal” as there are people in the room.

It takes time to switch gears from “getting back to normal” to “discerning a vision” for God’s future for us. 

Normal is overrated. 

  1. Reminded us that we need one another.

Across these months we’ve cared for one another, supported one another, and, from time to time, griped at one another. That’s normal and natural, but not particularly fun.

In the end, however, we need one another.

  1. Helped us to be more dependent on God.

I’d like to say all of this has helped us to be more dependent on God. But, I’m not sure that it has. At least, not yet. It remains to be seen whether it will or not.

We can’t take it for granted, but we can pray to God that he would use it in our lives to make us lean on him in ever increasing measure.

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