The Coronavirus: Serving Our Sick Neighbors

File:Staff monitoring passengers' body temperature in Wuhan railway station during the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.jpg

Credit: Wikipedia

It’s spreading so quickly. What started as a little-known virus, infecting a group of people in Wuhan in eastern China, is now spreading across the world. The World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus a global health emergency. The United States has issued a Level 4 travel advisory, its highest alert, against travel to China.

Part of what makes the coronavirus so frightening is the unknowns associated with it. A live map that tracks the virus shows over 17,000 confirmed cases of the virus. Almost over 500 people have recovered from the virus while over 350 have, sadly, died. This leaves over 16,000 people who are still sick and whose fates we are still awaiting. Doctors are also not sure precisely how the virus can spread. Can it spread before symptoms appear? The jury is still out. There are some reports that the virus can enter a body through simply rubbing one’s eyes if a person has picked up a trace of the virus on their hands.

In the midst of much fear, one of the things we can be thankful for are doctors who go into harms’ way to care for patients. This kind of care has not always, historically, been how society has reacted to sicknesses. In his book The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark quotes the Christian bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, who describes how many people reacted when a smallpox epidemic swept through the Roman Empire in the third century:

At the first onset of the disease, people pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.

Dionysius goes on explain that the response of Christians to this epidemic was quite different:

Most of our brothers showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.

It is this uniquely Christian spirit and legacy of caring for the sick, instead of leaving them to die, that endures across much of the world even today.

In 1527, the bubonic plague arrived in Wittenberg Germany, where a monk named Martin Luther was teaching. He chose to stay in Wittenberg and provide care for the sick, during which time he wrote a tract: Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague. Luther encouraged people not take unnecessary risks during epidemics, writing:

Examples in Holy Scripture abundantly prove that to flee from death is not wrong in itself. Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city.

And yet, even as Luther encouraged people to take every available precaution to prevent the spread of a disease, he did not encourage them to do so at the expense of those who were suffering, even if helping the suffering endangered their own lives:

It is the devil who…takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life. And so the devil would excrete us out of this life as he tries to make us despair of God, become unwilling and unprepared to die, and, under the stormy and dark sky of fear and anxiety, make us forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbor in his troubles.

Luther goes on to explain why, if we find ourselves in a position to help during a plague, we should defy the fears the devil plants in us:

If Christ shed His blood for me and died for me, why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for His sake and disregard this feeble plague? If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine. Should not my dear Christ, with His precepts, His kindness, and all His encouragement, be more important in my spirit than you, roguish devil, with your false terrors in my weak flesh? God forbid! Get away, devil. Here is Christ and here am I, His servant in this work. Let Christ prevail! Amen.

Amen, indeed.

And so today, while nations across the world continue to take precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, I give thanks for the medical professionals who are taking great risks to care for those who are dangerously ill. These professionals are serving their neighbors – both those neighbors who are sick and those neighbors who will not get sick, thanks to their work.

May their love and care do much good for our world.

February 3, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Kobe Bryant: 1978-2020

When my wife said to me from the other room, “Kobe Bryant is dead?!” I thought at first she had been taken in by another one of those celebrity death hoaxes that sometimes make their rounds on social media. But she hadn’t. The news was true. The loss was real.

As the story of Kobe’s untimely death began to sink in, my first thought was, “He was my age.” He was born a mere two weeks before me. Then when I learned that his daughter was with him on the helicopter flight that crashed and took their lives, this tragedy felt even worse. Kobe leaves behind his wife and three other daughters. I cannot imagine the pain they must be experiencing right now.

As the news played a never-ending loop of Kobe Bryant highlights, reporters interviewed fellow stars who were memorializing him and fans who were crying over him. The death of a household name like Kobe Bryant – especially under the fluke circumstances of a terrible crash – brings into sharp focus something so many of us are generally loathe to consider: the stark and dark reality of death.

As a nation grapples with the loss of one of its biggest stars, there is an ancient perspective on death – the Christian perspective on death – that is worth our reflection, for, I believe, it can be a source of hope. So, here are three Christian claims about death.

Death is unnatural.

Contrary to what Forrest Gump’s momma told him, dying is not just a part of life. There’s a reason that, when someone dies, tears flow, questions of “why” are asked, and anger at a life-gone-too-soon ensues. It’s because we can feel that there is something profoundly unnatural about death.

The Christian faith teaches that this feeling about death is nothing less than a good theology of death. Death is the result of and the punishment for sin. It is not, however, part of God’s creative design. It was introduced only after Adam and Eve disobeyed God. This is why the apostle Paul calls death an “enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

So, if you ever find yourself mourning a death, don’t feel as though you must feel that death is natural. It’s not. Your tears can flow, your questions can be asked, and you can shake your fist at what has taken your loved one from you.

Death is inevitable.

Death may not be natural, but it is inevitable. Part of what makes a passing like Kobe Bryant’s so shocking and tragic is because he was a man who seemed invincible. A sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Bill Plaschke, eulogized the basketball great this way:

Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people who died in a helicopter crash Sunday in Calabasas and how does that happen? Kobe is stronger than any helicopter. He didn’t even need a helicopter. For 20 years he flew into greatness while carrying a breathless city with him.

This can’t be true.

This is the way Kobe seemed – stronger than any helicopter. And yet, life’s fragility – and death’s inevitability – have coldly slapped a culture that treats its sports stars as invincible in its face.

The 17th century English poet John Donne wrote a poem in 1624 about a bout he had with spotted fever. While in the throes of his sickness, Donne heard the bells of a nearby church ringing at a funeral. He opined:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Donne knew that even if he survived this sickness, he would not survive every sickness. One day, the bell would toll for him. Indeed, one day, the bell will toll for us all – no matter how strong, how rich, how famous, how moral, how respected, or how invincible we are.

It is maddening. But it is true. Death is inevitable.

Death is destroyable.

The first claim of Christianity – that death is unnatural – we feel. The second claim of Christianity – that death is inevitable – we can empirically verify, for we all die. This final claim of Christianity – that death is destroyable – is one that calls for faith.

On its face, death does not seem destroyable. It seems only to destroy us. And yet, Christianity claims that there was once a man who was destroyed by death on cross who managed to return the favor to death when He rose again three days later, destroying death. And because He destroyed death for Himself, Christianity claims that He can also destroy death for us. For just as He once emptied His grave, He will one day empty our graves. As the apostle Paul explains:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-54)

Death is destroyable, Paul says.

The same poet who once reflected on the inevitability of his own death also wrote a sonnet about his hope for life. John Donne called it “Death Be Not Proud”:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

When death takes a life, John Donne reminds us, it “swell’st thou.” It swells with pride that it has separated another family, brought on more tears, and broken more hearts. But even if death is stronger than us, it is not stronger than the One who once called Himself “the life” (John 14:6). And because of His life, we can have life, too – eternal life.

Kobe Bryant has died. But death should not be proud. Because Kobe’s death is not the last word on his life. For this much I know:

Death, thou shalt die.

May it be so quickly.

January 27, 2020 at 5:15 am 2 comments

What Does God Ask of Us?

In Matthew 21, the religious leaders are becoming increasingly incredulous toward Jesus. He has just ridden into Jerusalem triumphantly, receiving the praise of adoring throngs. He has also wrecked the temple’s shadow economy by driving out those who were buying and selling there. And He has outwitted and outsmarted the religious leaders after they tried to question Jesus’ authority. Now, Jesus moves on to tell these same religious leaders a story:

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. (Matthew 21:28-31)

Jesus tells a story about a father who has two sons. The first son initially verbally spars with his father, but ultimately does what his father asks. The second son pays lip service to honoring his father, but refuses to do what his father asks.

This story is meant to be about the religious leaders, for, although they pay lip service to God, they do not do what God asks. The question that is still hanging in the air at the end of Jesus’ story, however, is this: what does God ask? Jesus’ answer, as He explains His story to the religious leaders, is fascinating:

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. (Matthew 21:31-32)

This, Jesus says, is what God asks: to believe. Jesus puts it this way in John’s Gospel: “The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent” (John 6:29). And yet, this is what the religious leaders refuse to do – to believe in the One God has sent. The religious leaders are so busy following religious rules that their righteous looking actions become the sum total of what they think God wants from them. But God does not need their righteous actions, for He already has all righteousness. So, He simply asks for faith – to stop believing in ourselves and to start believing in His Son. But this is what the religious leaders refuse to give. Faith is the one thing the religious leaders do not do.

The tax collectors and prostitutes to which Jesus refers know they can’t trust themselves, for they have already destroyed themselves. So, instead, they put their faith in One they hope can rescue them from themselves. Thus, they, and not the religious leaders, are the ones who, though they may spar with God, ultimately do what God asks them to do.

Where is your faith? Do you do what God asks of you? It turns out that what God asks you to do is not something you do at all. It’s Someone you trust.

In Christian circles, we will often talk about pointing people like tax collectors and prostitutes – the so-called “broken” and “bad” people of society – to Jesus, because they need Him. This is most certainly true and this is, in fact, something we should do. But let us not forgot that, in Matthew 21, it’s the tax collectors and prostitutes who are pointing religious people like us to Jesus, because, as it turns out, anyone can point someone to Jesus because anyone can have faith in Jesus.

My prayer is that you do.

January 20, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Thoughts on the Iran Conflict

It’s been a hard week on the world stage. At the beginning of this year, U.S. forces attacked and killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, a man who the Pentagon says was “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more” and “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomates and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”  Iran retaliated by launching a barrage of more the 20 missiles at two large military bases in Iraq, which, according to a statement from President Trump, did not, thankfully, kill any U.S. service members.  Sadly, it has now become clear that even though the attacks on the bases did not kill any Americans, a rogue missile, launched during this attack, did accidentally down a Ukranian passenger jet, killing 176 people, many of whom were part of a wedding party from Canada. The picture above of a child’s shoe gives perhaps the most heart wrenching glimpse into the true scope of this tragedy. So-called “collateral damage” from Iran’s attack was not just damage – it was death.

One of the most roundly condemned sins in the Scriptures is the shedding of “innocent blood.” Innocent blood was shed by General Soleimani through his terrorist activities. Innocent blood was shed on this passenger flight, even if inadvertently, by Iranian forces. And now, the hearts of many families who have lost loved ones are breaking. So, at the same time we can give thanks that a full-fledged conflict has not broken out, we should also mourn with the grieving. They are the reasons we should continue to, in the words of the Psalmist, “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14). By God’s grace, may we be successful in our search.

January 13, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Violence That Never Seems To Stop

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Credit: Sam Rios on Unsplash

In my blog last week, I reflected on some of the events that shaped 2019, and I noted that there have been “accelerating attacks on houses of worship.” Unfortunately, the end of 2019 demonstrated just how true that was.

First, it was an attack on a Hanukkah celebration at a home in a New York City suburb. A knife wielding assailant burst into the home, wounding five people while the people inside scrambled to flee out the back door. Then, the very next morning, a gunman opened fire at a Church of Christ congregation outside of Fort Worth. Two people were killed. Many more probably would have been lost, but the gunman was taken down by the church’s security team.

It’s difficult to see these kinds of attacks at these kinds of gatherings. Celebrations and congregations are not meant to be battlefields. They are meant to be arenas of respite and rejoicing.

On the one hand, none of this surprising. As a Christian, I follow a man who warned of “wars and rumors of wars” (Mark 13:7). Those who are Jewish know well Daniel’s prophetic announcement to King Xerxes: “War will continue until the end” (Daniel 9:26). Though both of these prophecies, in their contexts, point to the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem in AD 70, they can be applied throughout history. People are violent. And the human inclination toward violence shows no signs of abating.

While I am heartbroken over these stories, I am also grateful that, in both of these instances, many of these people were able to escape their attackers, or, as in the case of this most recent church shooting, the security team was able to stop the attacker. Sadly, however, we will not be able to end these types of attacks altogether. Too many stories of too much violence have demonstrated otherwise. In truth, despite our best efforts at safety, only God Himself can truly end violence. As God explained to His people of old, when God returns on history’s final day, “no longer will violence be heard” (Isaiah 60:18).

Until that day, I pray for victims and their families, I pray against further attacks, I give thanks for those who protect others while risking themselves, and I look forward to the day when my hope for peace will become the sight of peace. Even when it looks otherwise, I still firmly believe that guns and knives are no match for God.

January 6, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

2019: Year in Review

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Credit: Ulrike Leone from Pixabay 

It’s hard to believe another year has come and is now nearly gone. This year has had its share of memorable moments. There were the accelerating attacks on houses of worship – synagogues, mosques, and churches. There were the wildfires that devastated California and Hurricane Dorian that decimated the Bahamas. There was the huge controversy surrounding the Boeing 737 MAX, which experienced problems with one of its automated flight control systems, resulting in two deadly crashes. Politically, there was the impeachment of a president and the death of Elijah Cummings, a fixture in the US House of Representatives. And then, of course, in a story that will reach into 2020, there is a presidential election brewing.

It’s difficult not to experience a bit of déjà vu as I look back over this year’s big stories. Deadly rampages continue to terrorize communities and cultures. Natural disasters, a staple of creation since the introduction of sin, continue to wreak havoc across our nation and throughout the world. Businesses continue to find themselves in PR nightmares. And, our political fissures continue to widen and deepen. None of these problems were new to 2019. These were just new manifestations of old menaces.

Solomon famously wrote: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This is most certainly true. But we must also remember that this is not ultimate.

The apostle Peter writes about those who, like Solomon, know that things don’t really change. But they also doubt that anything ever will change. They complain: “Everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4). But Peter knows that even if the axiom “history repeats itself” is true of history, it is not true for the future, which is why Peter holds out this hope:

The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with His promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10-13)

Peter says there is a day coming when all the drudgery of this age will be overcome by the delight of the age to come.

But here’s the key: Peter says that, since we know that something better and different is on its way, we ought to “look forward” to what is to come. In Greek, the word for the phrase “look forward” is prosdokeo. Dokeo is a word that denotes “thinking,” and pros is a prefix that denotes “that which is first” or “at the head.” In other words, Peter is admonishing us to “think ahead.” Think ahead to a day when mass murders will die and natural disasters will be rendered unnatural and commerce will be consecrated and politics will care only about King Jesus. Think ahead to that day. Because it will be a supremely good day.

I’m praying for a great 2020. But I’m also hoping for a perfect eternity. I don’t know how God will answer my prayer. But I do know He will fulfill my hope. For my hope is His promise.

December 30, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

In a World Full of Much News, Christmas is Good News

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Credit: Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Christmas is almost here. As many of us go on last-minute buying binges while we search and shop for the perfect presents for all our special someones, it is worth remembering that what makes Christmas special is not everything we do for this holiday, but what we are called to focus on in this holiday.

The first Christmas was a birthday punctuated by an angelic announcement to some shepherds who were in close proximity to a historically incomparable infant. An angel said to these shepherds:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

Here, in this angel’s message, we find a sort of executive summary of what not only Christmas, but Christianity, is all about. The angel explains that a Savior has been born who is “good news.”

This two-word phrase – “good news” – is the echocardiogram by which the heartbeat of the Christian faith is measured. If this phrase permeates Christianity, the Christian faith is alive and well. If it does not, the Christian faith is doomed to anemia and obsolescence. Here’s why.

Culturally, two types of religion are prevalent. In more traditional cultures, religion that demands “good behavior” reigns. This version of religion promises that if you do what you should do and don’t do what you shouldn’t do, God will be pleased with you. This version of religion rewards one who walks the straight and narrow and lives as a straight arrow. Conversely, in more progressive cultures, religion that focuses on “good feelings” carries the day. This version of religion eschews what it sees as the needlessly constrictive and primitive commands of traditional religion and instead seeks the supernatural in what makes you feel good. Creeds of this religion include, “You do you,” “If it feels good do it,” and, “God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy.” Interestingly, though these two religions sound different, at their core, they share the same assumption: the onus for spiritual fulfillment is on you because religion is about you. You are the one who is responsible for your spirituality – either by your behavior or in your emotional state.

Christianity is utterly different. Christianity is not about you. Instead, Christianity is for you. And there is a world of difference between these two.

Christianity is about Christ – His birth that an angel announces to some shepherds, His ministry that He carries out in front of a myriad of eyewitnesses, His death that He dies in place of sinners, and His resurrection by which He conquers death. This is why the angel calls Christ’s birth “news.” News is about what someone else from somewhere else has done. Christ is someone else from somewhere else – from heaven itself. And He has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He has lived the life we cannot live, died the death we deserved to die, and offered the penalty for sin we cannot pay. Christianity is news about Christ. But it is not just “news,” it is “good news.” Why? Because, as the angel says, even though Christianity is about Christ, it is “for all the people.” And “all the people” includes you. What Christ has done, then, He has done for you.

Christianity promises that responsibility for spiritual fulfillment does not rest on you. Instead, it rests on the One who lies in a manger, dies on a cross, and empties a tomb. Jesus has done all the work necessary to procure the ultimate spiritual fulfillment of salvation for you. That’s the news the angel offers these shepherds. And I, for one, happen to think that news is quite good.

My prayer for you, this Christmas, is that you think it’s good, too. And that you believe that this news is for you. For it is this news that makes Christmas merry and hope real.

December 23, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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