On This Pandemic Anniversary
MARCH 3, 2021
You’re reading this letter in March, but I’m writing it in January. So, you are now experiencing an anniversary, one that I’ll experience in a couple months, the anniversary of the COVID pandemic.
It was last March when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, our president declared a national emergency, and the “temporary” lockdowns started (and for some of you, those “temporary” lockdowns are still in effect).
After the devastation in South Florida following Hurricane Andrew, some local leaders invited Billy Graham to come preach a message of hope to those thousands of people who had lost so much, many their homes and all they owned. Dr. Graham came and, among other things, he said that, on the flight down, he noticed that someone had written on a roof, “Okay, God, you got our attention. Now what?”
COVID certainly got our attention. It seems to me adding all that happened besides the pandemic—the incredibly divisive election, the hatred, the riots, the violence and death, the anxiety of a political transition, etc.—it was overkill. I told God that and I know he heard me because I spoke about it loudly and often. I told him several times, “And by the way, I’ve mentioned this before.” J I also think he heard me because I felt hope and a degree of peace that certainly didn’t come from circumstances.
Still, God didn’t do anything about those circumstances and, honestly, that’s quite irritating.
I suspect you’ve heard, watched, and read (as I have) the Christian sermons, blogs, and teaching, all speaking messages of comfort and hope. Some of those were helpful and some not so much. There are a lot of religious clichés going around (I’ve used a number of them), a lot of Bible verses quoted out of context (I plead guilty to some of that too), and a lot of crying “peace” when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14).
So, it’s time for somebody to give us answers, to make sense out of this darkness, and to bring some clarity.
That’s not me.
Not only that, I’m cynical enough to think that nobody else can do that either. And even if somebody does, it probably won’t be anybody ordained because . . . well . . . because that’s what we’re paid to do (we have to say something). If anybody has answers, I suspect it will be somebody you have never heard of and who might be less religious than you think they ought to be. In fact, it might be you. So, if you have answers and clarity, give me a call and I’ll tell a lot of people.
Meanwhile, does that mean we’re hopeless? Of course not.
There is hope, but the hope doesn’t mean we’re in control. Job eventually had some hope and help; but in between, he despaired of life itself. When Job said that even if God killed him, he would still trust God (Job 13:15), that was the last spiritual and laudable thing he said. After that it was “cussing and spitting,” even to the point of saying that he hated the day he was born. Job was out of control and he didn’t like it one bit. I don’t either. Mario Andretti (the race car driver) said, “If you think you’re in control, you’re not going fast enough.” This pandemic (and all the other dark places we’ve experienced) showed us just how little we’re in control of what happens in the world, and to us and those we love.
That’s bad. Actually, no, it’s good. We have never been in control. We only thought we were. On this pandemic anniversary, the helplessness we feel is a good starting point for acquiring the wisdom of turning to God . . . who isn’t helpless. It’s sort of a relief when we realize that we can’t fix things. And we find hope in knowing someone who can.
I have no idea what the Psalmist was going through when he wrote the words of Psalm 131. It probably wasn’t a pandemic; but, whatever it was, it was something pretty bad. People simply don’t get that kind of wisdom when the sun is shining and as Robert Browning put it, “God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world!” It takes an encounter with the harsh reality of a fallen world. When that happens, one can then write: “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.”
There is hope in the trust of a child. There is also hope in the realization that sometimes what we hate is the very thing we need . . . and God knows exactly what we need. When I was living in Miami, a service station attendant once told me that what South Florida needed was a good hurricane. “It’s the only time,” he said, “when we come together and neighbors help neighbors.” It’s a good point, but far more positive than actual reality. In a hurricane, neighbors do help neighbors . . . but some are looters. We may come together . . . but some are con artists. Hurricanes and pandemics show evil to be evil and good to be good. I know that may sound cynical, but it is also biblical.
There is a clarifying process (an “attack of sanity,” if you will) that takes place in a pandemic. Christians, when living in a “crooked and twisted generation” (Philippians 2:15), should shine as lights in the darkness. Paul admonished Christians to remember “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” and to focus on those things (Philippians 4:8-9).
That, of course, can be a prescription for self-righteousness (that’s everywhere right now), except for one thing. When it’s dark enough we not only see the dark in others, we see it in ourselves all the more. I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt more angry, frustrated, depressed, and irritated than I have in the last year. Paul wrote, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). That’s good advice, but there’s a problem. How do you know what are and what aren’t the “works of darkness”? Pandemics show you.
I have a friend who is the pastor of a divided congregation—politically, socially, and economically. When things were going well in his congregation, all of that was covered over with “religion” and “religious words.” When the pandemic, the lockdowns, and all the other dark things happened, his congregation became a bunch of “serial killers.” My friend asked me what to do and my answer was profound: “I don’t have the foggiest.” And my telling him that I was glad it wasn’t me probably didn’t help much either.
Do you know what he did? My friend confessed his sins to the congregation. That was crazy, but because it was biblical (James 5:16), it was crazy like a fox. There is healing taking place in the congregation because of his repentance and confession. And more than that, there is hope. Don’t waste the sin Jesus showed you about yourself in the pandemic, okay?
There is one other thing. There is hope in running to God as a child runs to his or her mother or father, in the clarifying nature of bad stuff, and in the realization of our own need and sin. There is also hope in the biblical recognition that “this too will pass.”
Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 are not very comforting. Don’t read them as your evening devotions or you won’t be able to sleep. (Don’t thank me . . . I was glad to help.) In those verses, Jesus told his disciples not to have false expectations. He warned them about false messiahs, liars, lawlessness, people leaving their Christian roots, wars, and natural disasters (a pandemic would be in that category), and how they would be persecuted and hated. Jesus then made a statement worthy of a plaque to hang on our bedroom walls where we toss and turn: “All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matthew 24:8).
On another occasion, in talking about his resurrection, Jesus again used the imagery of childbirth. Because this passage is now understood in a post-resurrection context, they are good words to remember in a pandemic or in any other depressing event: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:20-24).
Peter wrote that we should not be surprised by pandemics, confusion, and suffering “as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). Then he gave us hope: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10).
In the original Greek that reads, “You can stand hell if you know you’re going to get out.”
He told me to remind you!