Coronavirus Comfort

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Credit: Pixabay

It’s been another tough week in our nation. I keep wondering where the peak of the coronavirus’s spread is on the one hand and where the bottom of our economy is on the other. The number of people becoming infected is increasing – exponentially. And the economy is collapsing. Goldman Sachs is forecasting a 24% decline in our GDP in the second quarter while J.P. Morgan predicts a more “modest” decline of 14%. Families are trying to stay healthy by sheltering-in-place while businesses are trying to figure out how to stay afloat. And no one seems to know quite how or when all this will end.

At times like these, the words of Martin Luther’s famed hymn seem especially poignant:

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.

This moment in our history is certainly filled with “mortal ills.” And yet, God is stronger than any illness. God is bigger than our own mortality.

This is why Luther concludes his hymn:

Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

Even if coronavirus can quarantine a society, it cannot quell God’s presence. And even if coronavirus kills a body, it cannot conquer God’s kingdom. His kingdom is forever. Coronavirus is not.

Let’s try to remember that during these long days.

March 23, 2020 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Coronavirus Concern Sweeps the Nation

Arlington National Cemetery is one of the many public spaces that has been closed in the wake of the spread of COVID-19.
Credit: National Guard

As I write about COVID-19 for the third time now on this blog, I must admit that I never expected to devote this much attention and concern to a virus that first emerged halfway across the world. But the state and spread of this virus is shifting so quickly, it’s nearly impossible not to be riveted by what is unfolding. So much has happened this week.

The World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

The NBA, the NHL, and MLB have all suspended their seasons.

The NCAA has cancelled March Madness.

Public spaces across the nation – including places like Disneyland – are closing.

The financial markets are suffering from whiplash.

Air travel to and from Europe has been suspended.

And we’re still having trouble slowing the virus’s spread.

Many of these actions above are the result of an abundance of caution, which is good. But along with much caution, there is also much fear. After all, there’s still so much we do not know about this virus. Its mortality rate continues to be elusive to us. The actual number of infections remains unclear. Testing for the virus remains limited. And, of course, treatment options are nearly non-existent.

Fear like this at a situation like this can lead to all sorts of panicked responses. Stories of stores selling out of staples like bottled water and toilet paper abound. But panic does not equal prevention. The continued calls to wash your hands, wipe down surfaces, and practice social distancing are the things that are necessary to stymie the spread of this virus.

In 1519, the city of Zurich, Switzerland was overrun by the Black Death. It claimed the lives of a third of the city’s population. There was a famous reformer of the Church who lived in Zurich at this time, Ulrich Zwingli. As he cared for those who were ill, he himself contracted the disease. In what seems like a near miracle, he did not die. But while he was in the throes of his sickness, he composed a poem:

My pains increase;
Haste to console;
For fear and woe
Seize body and soul.

Death is at hand.
My senses fail.
My tongue is dumb;
Now, Christ, prevail. 

Lo! Satan strains
To snatch his prey;
I feel his grasp;
Must I give way?

He harms me not,
I fear no loss,
For here I lie
Beneath Thy cross.

Whether in sickness or in health, whether in times of prosperity or pandemic, we lie beneath the cross. And because of this, even as we are cautious, we are not afraid. If a cross could not overcome Christ, a pandemic cannot conquer His promises to us.

March 16, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Temporary Peace and Perfect Peace

In a story that has largely flown under the radar, a week ago Saturday, the United States signed a deal with the Taliban that begins the process of ending the war in Afghanistan. The process of withdrawing our troops will be a protracted one, and the end of this war is anything but certain. Mujib Mashal reports for The New York Times:

The agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, which followed more than a year of stop-and-start negotiations and conspicuously excluded the American-backed Afghanistan government, is not a final peace deal, is filled with ambiguity, and could still unravel … 

The withdrawal of American troops – about 12,000 are still in Afghanistan – is dependent on the Taliban’s fulfillment of major commitments that have been obstacles for years, including its severance of ties with international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. 

The agreement also hinges on more difficult negotiations to come between the Taliban and the Afghan government over the country’s future. Officials hope those talks will produce a power-sharing arrangement and lasting cease-fire, but both ideas have been anathema to the Taliban in the past.

This war may finally end – but only maybe. What’s more, the lack of American presence in the region could lead to the re-oppression of historically marginalized groups there:

The United States, which struggled to help secure better rights for women and minorities and instill a democratic system and institutions in Afghanistan, has struck a deal with an insurgency that has never clearly renounced its desire for a government and justice system rooted in a severe interpretation of Islam.

Though the Taliban get their primary wish under this agreement – the withdrawal of American troops – they have remained vague in commitments to protect the civil rights that they had brutally repressed when in power.

In short, the peace agreement that is being forged in this region is a very tenuous one and comes with a price that include the loss of some civil rights.

The prophet Isaiah famously prophesies the coming of the Messiah as One who will be the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). What is sometimes missed in Isaiah’s description of the Messiah, however, is how this Prince of Peace will establish His peace:

He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. (Isaiah 9:7)

The Prince of Peace will bring His peace by establishing “justice and righteousness.” An enduring peace cannot be accomplished by overlooking injustice and righteousness – by looking past sin – but only by dealing directly with sin. This is why human peace treaties – no matter how noble – always seem to be temporary. For as long as there is sin in this world, there can be no perfect peace.

Thus, though we may wait expectantly for and even celebrate a peace treaty for Afghanistan, we rest assuredly in the perfect peace our Prince of Peace will bring on the Last Day when He will:

…judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

That’s perfect peace. And it’s coming – no matter what happens in Afghanistan.

March 9, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Coronavirus Continues to Spread

The coronavirus outbreak continues to spread – rapidly. Yesterday’s update from the Washington Post is worth citing:

A northwest Oregon resident has tested positive for coronavirus with no known history of travel to countries severely affected by the outbreak and no known contact with infected individuals, state health officials said Friday.

The case, in Washington County, marks the third case of unknown origin in the United States and indicates that the virus is spreading. It is also the first coronavirus case in Oregon …

Earlier Friday, health officials in Santa Clara County, Calif., said a 65-year-old resident also had a case of coronavirus with unknown origin – becoming the second U.S. case of community transmission. The nation’s first community-transmission patient was a woman in Solano County, about 90 miles away.

The World Health Organization on Friday raised its risk assessment of the coronavirus to “very high,” citing the risk of spread and impact. WHO officials said their assessment – the highest level short of declaring a global pandemic – doesn’t change the approach countries should take to combat the virus but should serve as a “wake up” and “reality check” for countries to hurry their preparations.

The U.S. stock market fell for the seventh straight day amid fears of global economic damage from the escalating outbreak, and the Federal Reserve took the unusual step of issuing a statement to reassure Americans.

“The fundamentals of the U.S. economy remain strong. However, the coronavirus poses evolving risks to economic activity,” Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell said. “The Fed is closely monitoring developments and their implications for the economic outlook. We will use our tools and act as appropriate to support the economy.”

It is sobering to realize that despite all our modern medical advances and all our yeoman’s efforts at containment, the world still stands relatively defenseless against a virus that carries with it a startling mortality rate of, at present, 2.3% – a rate that far outpaces the mortality rate of the seasonal flu, which sits at around .1%.

This past Wednesday, the Christian Church began its observance of the liturgical season of Lent, which kicked off with Ash Wednesday. In churches across the world, the words God once spoke to Adam after he fell into sin were repeated to the faithful: “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). These grim words are meant to call us to reflect on our own mortality. Death is inescapable. The mortality rate associated with the coronavirus may be at 2.3%. The mortality rate of humanity itself sits at 100%. As President Kennedy said in a famous speech at American University in 1963, “We are all mortal.” Our problem, it turns out, is bigger than any virus. Our problem is our very selves.

I am deeply grateful that scientists and medical professionals across the world are working tirelessly to quickly identify, contain, and develop a vaccine against the deadly coronavirus. I am thankful that governments are taking the needed – and often ambitious – steps to combat the virus’s spread. But the coronavirus epidemic should serve as yet another reminder of just how fragile life really is. The culmination of Lent into Easter, however, is a promise of just how powerful Jesus’ life really was. A deadly disease is just no match for an empty tomb. And in a world where the headlines smack of death, that’s the kind of life we need.

March 2, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Baseball Scandals and Echo Chambers

It’s the biggest shakeup Major League Baseball has faced since the steroid scandal of the 90s. The Astros coming up with an elaborate system to steal opposing teams’ pitching signs got them all the way to the World Series, but it cost them their reputation and has left their franchise in shambles. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s comments strike me as especially insightful as their scheme continues to unravel:

The culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other Clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic. At least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture – one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to…an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.

Mr. Manfred’s point is critical. Not only can people justify their own questionable actions, they can justify each other’s if the payoff feels high enough. This can create an echo chamber where, if one were to look from the outside in at what was happening, the problems would be obvious, but, from the inside, the compromises seem merely logical and at worst paltry. The Astros February 13 press conference, which was long on excuses and finger pointing and short on apologies, demonstrated just how easy it can be to convince ourselves of our own rightness even when everyone around us is shouting, “Wrong!”

The apostle John once wrote: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). The plural pronouns here are important. Not only can one person deceive him or her self about his or her personal sin, we can, together, John says, deceive ourselves about our corporate sin. This is why one of the fundamental assertions of Christianity is that we need someone outside of ourselves to tell us the truth about ourselves.

Theologians will speak of how salvation works extra nos – Latin for “outside ourselves.” We do not – indeed, we cannot – save ourselves. Christ must come in from the outside and do the work of salvation for us. The inverse of this is another Latin phrase, this one conceptualized by the church father Augustine: incurvitas in se, which means, “turned in on oneself.” This is the essential nature of sin. Sin draws us further and further into ourselves – our excuses, our half-truths, and our pathetic justifications. Christianity beckons us to turn from ourselves and toward Christ.

The crisis with the Astros Club does not just point to a problem with baseball, but to a larger broken condition in humanity. The question we must ask ourselves is this: where are we tempted to look to ourselves, rather than to Christ, to deal with our sin? When are we tempted to conceal, instead of to confess, where we have done wrong? The more we rely on ourselves to fix ourselves, the more damage we do to ourselves.

So, unlike the Astros, let’s not believe our own press. Instead let us press in to the One who is God’s Son.

February 24, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Less Anger and More Smiles

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According to Guinness World Records, we have a new world’s-oldest-male:

A Japanese man with a sweet tooth who believes in smiles has become the world’s oldest male at 112 years … Chitetsu Watanabe, who was born in Niigata in northern Japan in 1907, received a certificate for his accomplishment on Wednesday at a nursing home in the city. The previous record holder, Masazo Nonaka, another Japanese, died last month. 

As is often the case with aged people, Mr. Watanabe was asked about to what he credits his longevity. He answered, “Don’t get angry and keep smiling.”

In a society that has no shortage of anger, Mr. Watanabe certainly offers some contrarian advice. And yet, medically, Mr. Watanabe just might be right. Study after study has shown that, although anger can be helpful in flashes to solve big problems, sustained anger, if not directly, is at least secondarily damaging to your health. Dr. Michael Kutcher, an interventional cardiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, explains:

It’s kind of an adjunctive risk factor. It’s not of and by itself a cause of coronary artery disease or a cause of heart disease. But if the anger is sustained and the blood pressure is affected and the heart rate is affected, that indirectly can lead to coronary disease or disease of the heart muscle.

John Schinnerer, an anger management coach in Danville, California, links anger to a whole host of health problems:

It’s been linked to obesity, low self-esteem, migraines, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, sexual performance problems, increased heart attack risk, lower-quality relationships, higher probability of abusing others emotionally or physically or both, higher blood pressure, and stroke.

In short, anger is something you don’t want to mess around with.

Perhaps Jesus’ brother James was on to something when he wrote: “Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20). And perhaps Solomon really was wise when he wrote: “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9).

Although Christians sometimes talk about a “righteous anger” at the sinfulness and brokenness of this world, we must admit that our appeals to “righteous anger” can be, at times, just thin justifications for anger that is far more sinful than it is saintly. Our anger can be more often self-interested than justice-oriented. I would also point out that, even when the Bible does speak of “righteous anger,” it is immediately followed by a warning: “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). The line between righteous and unrighteous anger, it turns out, is razor thin.

Living life with joy rather than anger seems to be a much safer proposition. The apostle Paul encourages us: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4)! Joy is so good, Paul says, it is something we should have “always.” Why? Well, I can’t guarantee that it’ll help you live to 112. But it will be a blessing to those around you. And they’re reason enough to smile.

February 17, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Disagreement and Division

In his book Love Your Enemies, Arthur Brooks argues for the often-overlooked value in disagreement using a template drawn from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

Aristotle wrote that there were three kinds of friendship: The first and lowest form of friendship is based on utility, wherein both people derive some benefit from each other … The next level of friendship for Aristotle is based on pleasure; both people are drawn to each other’s wit, intelligence, talent, good looks, or other attractive qualities … The highest form of friendship – the “perfect friendship” in Aristotle’s telling – is based on willing the good of the other and a shared sense of what is virtuous and true.

In the first two levels of friendship, Brooks explains, we carefully avoid disagreeing, because we don’t want to lose whatever it is we’re gaining from the other person. In the third level of friendship, conversely, we heartily engage in disagreement because we want what’s best for the other person, and, if they are heading down a path that is harmful or unhealthy, we are not afraid to call it out. In other words, disagreement can be helpful because disagreement can be revealing. Disagreement can be refining.

Disagreement can be good. Division, however, is something quite different.

In his letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul practically begs his readers not to fall prey to division:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. (1 Corinthians 1:10)

The Corinthians were divided over a whole host of things, including which spiritual leader they liked the most:

One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:12)

For Paul’s part, he finds the notion of division dangerous, asking, “Is Christ divided” (1 Corinthians 1:13)?

This past week, the deep political divisions that have long plagued our nation reared their heads in obvious and astounding ways. When the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, tore up her copy of the State of the Union address the President had handed her at the beginning of his speech, she – even if inappropriately – perhaps unintentionally acted out physically a deeper relational reality in our nation. There are certain groups of people who cannot stand – and indeed hate – other groups of people. There are parts of us that are torn apart.

I will not pretend that I can even begin to fix the partisan hatred that ails us. But it is worth reminding ourselves that, for those of us who bear Christ’s name, even if we can’t fix our world’s divisions, we can model a holy communion.

A holy communion does not just arise when we all agree with each other. Instead, it is also forged in how we disagree with each other. Do we truly listen to what a person is saying, or do we quickly move to caricature their comments? Do we assume the best in each other rather than the worst? Do we celebrate places of agreement, even as we hash out points of disagreement? And, most importantly, is our love for someone contingent on their agreement with us, or does it flow from the grace that God has first given us? If we disagree without love, we are left only with sore division. If we disagree with love, we can retain devotion to each other even as we dispute with each other. If we disagree with love, we can keep and reach people, even as we question their opinions and positions. And this is not just a way to avoid division. This is the Church’s very mission. May we carry it out faithfully by God’s grace and under His guidance.

February 10, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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