Can Faith Really Help Us Through the Pandemic?
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
I just don’t think our faith traditions in the US have done a good job of dealing with darkness.
While driving around our part of Michigan this past weekend, and during a time when pandemic restrictions are back, I couldn’t help but notice the restaurants closed to indoor dining. Our local paper included an article about a nearby diner (we do have them in Michigan) that couldn’t keep afloat, even with a small carry out business.
On the news we’re seeing new momentum of the tally of deaths due to COVID-19, the result of skyrocketing coronavirus infections. We’re also seeing our stressed health care system, and especially the pleas from frontline workers who are overwhelmed, and even sometimes paying the ultimate sacrifice, just for doing their jobs.
I’m continually struck as well that we never see the faces of all the people sick in the hospital and sometimes dying. Perhaps hardly anyone sees them, even their own family members, at least not in person. Who gets newspaper deliveries anymore that show obituaries, and who is attending funerals now?
What calamity have we ever faced as a nation or a world where the historical, so extraordinarily tragic toll is so invisible, especially while we remain confined to our homes or non-communal outdoor spaces?
As I’m writing this, as a nation we just celebrated Thanksgiving, though definitely in a very different way. Considering the recent rate of infection, it does make you wonder what kind of Christmas holiday we’re headed into.
We do have hope, fortunately, that more than one vaccine will be available in the coming weeks, and perhaps by spring we’ll have stymied the virus and life will improve. We also know that we’ve generally survived another challenging political season, and we can now turn our attention back to everyday life, to put it simply. Finally, despite the overwhelming challenges to some businesses and the disruption to individual job holders, our economy is showing resiliency. There’s even a prediction that the recovery will be better than the 2009 recession, given that many consumers have been saving money.
These are good developments, and a sign that life inevitably goes on, but none of those pieces of good news should gloss over the tragic moments we’ve been living through. None of them are helping us deeply acknowledge the impact of what has been happening, and the imprint it will leave on us for decades to come.
For purposes of this blog, I am asking, what has our faith done to help us through?
First, I’d like to recognize without doubt that there is a foundation of hope that is built into the Christian life I’ve experienced over the years and incorporated for my own. The life, teachings and examples of Jesus. The many aphorisms and wisdom in biblical literature. The palpable love and support I’ve felt in communities and traditions of faith.
I will often talk about how there are undercurrents of our lives of which we are too often unaware, and the honesty, truth, compassion and love that I’ve seen demonstrated in the stories and experiences of my faith keep me going more than I realize. I even wonder, as Christmas approaches, whether I’m going to just lose it and more than ever want to soak in as much “believing” and hope of the great gift of joy it represents.
But this has been a trying time. I don’t know about you, but I’m not well. I don’t have as much energy each day. My fuse is shorter. My need for distractions has been higher, distractions that haven’t always been healthy. I don’t feel the same sense of purpose. If I’m really being honest, I am aware of the guilt that my life is exceptionally comfortable and that I haven’t done more to help us beat this pandemic and make our world a better place. I have adapted some, but it would be a lie to say I’m fine, or that the pandemic has opened up new ways of living (though it has. . . some). Now, don’t worry, and please don’t rush to send me a hotline number or the contact info of a good therapist. I can find those things on my own, and fortunately for me, my wife would make sure of that as well.
In any other calamity, instead of going it so alone and feeling so at the mercy of external factors, we would be able to gather in our communities, especially in our faith communities, and hold each other up and encourage each other. Not possible in this one. It’s a big, fat, stay-at-home-and-just-take-it-by-yourself kind of situation. The calls, video calls and even video church services help but only go so far, maybe only about one-third of the way there, which is resulting in a sort of spiritual starvation. And I’m hungry.
What I’m also struggling with is some continuing misgivings about the faith that I was raised in. As much as it’s been a help during this time, I think it also left me unprepared in certain ways. There’s the hypocrisy on full display during perhaps the most contentious political season we’ve ever witnessed. If the US is still majority Christian, then we’ve seen a lot of Christians behaving badly, perhaps myself included. Who knows, maybe it was just pandemic fatigue.
More than the hyped-up politics, I don’t think our faith traditions in the US have done a good job of dealing with darkness. We love to celebrate overcoming, achievement, change, and good news, while we often don’t demonstrate the capacity to hold in tension and create space for acknowledging calamity, unless it's a testimonial. I am aware of how devoted we can be to keep each other in mind, even petition for each other in prayer. Even create much needed foodbanks for those running out of money. But I am more aware of Christians doing good things than I am of people asking questions, wondering how things are going, how they work, and actively listening.
E specially in evangelicalism , we love to celebrate the birth, life and resurrection of Jesus, but we don’t have much tradition around the messiness of Jesus’s entry into the world, the insanity of what it was like to be him, or the sobering nadir of the story of his betrayal, mocking and horrible crucifixion, which was probably more horrible than the Bible indicates or our tradition understands.
Maybe it’s hard to pay better attention to this health crisis when we’re not getting ourselves organized physically in a church, and our pastors are burned out on just trying to keep things going. Let’s give ourselves some slack.
I guess what I’m also hoping for would be new ways of being real with each other. Telling the truth, openly and without judgement. Being specific without having to gloss it over that everything is fine. Slowing down, taking time for more phone calls and maybe even more video conferencing.
There’s a lot of irony—another thing us Christians at times lack—in the following biblical quote. It’s also depressing, frankly. Yet strangely, it has a lot to offer and I’ll end with this:
Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. James 4:8-10 (NIV)
Recent Discovery: Author and the speaker previously known as part of the emergent church movement, Tony Jones, now dubbed, Reverend Hunter, gave a video message this past Sunday for a church here in Michigan. It’s a candid review of his personal story of struggle as an author in Christian community, but also how he finds within the betrayals and changes that happened what it means to experience failure, and what it can reveal about ourselves.