Posts tagged ‘New York Magazine’

Processing a Pandemic

“When the pandemic is over…”

I’ve heard these words spoken over and over again by many people. And, I agree with them. I do believe this pandemic will eventually pass. But in my darker moments, I must admit that I also wonder about these words. I want to ask: “You say, ‘When the pandemic is over.’ When, pray tell, might that be?”

I have a feeling I’m not alone in asking this question. Not only am I not alone in asking this question among those around me; I am also not alone in asking this question among those throughout history.

In a really interesting long form piece for New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan takes his reader on a whirlwind tour of plagues throughout history. His descriptions of many historic plagues are gruesome. Take, for instance, the plague that swept through Rome in 536:

Black rats arrived in the Roman port of Alexandria. They carried with them their own parasite, a flea that lived on the rats’ blood and could survive up to six weeks without a host – making it capable of enduring long sea voyages. And as the bacteria spread among the rats, and their population began to collapse, the fleas, desperate for food, sought alternatives. Living very close to the rats, humans were an easy target … For several days after infection, you were asymptomatic, then grotesque black buboes appeared on your body – swollen lymph nodes near where the fleas had bitten. Death often came several days later.

John of Ephesus noted that as people “were looking at each other and talking, they began to totter and fell either in the streets or at home, in harbors, on ships, in churches, and everywhere.” As he traveled in what is now Turkey, he was surrounded by death: “Day by day, we too –  like everybody – knocked at the gate to the tomb … We saw desolate and groaning villages and corpses spread out on the earth, with no one to take up [and bury] them.”

This is not even the worst of Mr. Sullivan’s descriptions. His recounting of the 1918 flu pandemic here in the States is even more jarring:

In her book Pandemic 1918, Catharine Arnold notes that “victims collapsed in the streets, hemorrhaging from lungs and nose. Their skin turned dark blue with the characteristic ‘heliotrope cyanosis’ caused by oxygen failure as the lungs filled with pus, and they gasped for breath from ‘air-hunger’ like landed fish.” The nosebleeds were projectile, covering the surroundings with blood. “When their lungs collapsed,” one witness recounted, “air was trapped beneath their skin. As we rolled the dead in winding sheets, their bodies crackled – an awful crackling noise which sounded like Rice Crispies [sic] when you pour milk over them.”

But as the summer of 1918 began in the U.S., relief spread. Maybe it was over. And then, in the fall, confident that a vaccine was imminent, several cities, notably Philadelphia, hosted war-bond parades, with large crowds thronging the streets … In the coming weeks, the city morgue was piling bodies on top of bodies, stacked three deep in the corridors, with no ice and no embalming. The stench was rank. City authorities were reduced to asking people to put their dead loved ones out on the street for collection.

This is horrifying.

But Mr. Sullivan is not simply content to leave his reader with dreadful descriptions of plagues past. He also invites us to grapple with some hard truths that our being revealed by our present plague, like this one:

We are not in control.

This is most certainly true.

Christians, for millennia now, have known this and proclaimed this. But they have also trusted in and told of One who is in control – One who can, and even does, heal the sick and raise the dead.

Mr. Sullivan notes:

Reminding humans of our mortality, plagues throw up existential questions. 

They do. Whether we take the time to grapple with these existential questions, however, is up to us. Historically, people have answered threats to their existence in one of two ways:

Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die! (Isaiah 22:13)

Or:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

Some are confronted by a time like this and simply resign themselves to revelry, for they believe that this is all there is. Others are confronted by a time like this and hope for a restoration, for they know this is not how things should be – but they also believe that there is One who will make things as they can be. And they believe that this One remains with us to comfort us, even during a pandemic.

Which way will you respond to this present moment? Choose wisely.

August 17, 2020 at 5:15 am 2 comments


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