Daryl got on a plane yesterday.
He’s headed to a conference in Chicago, one for pastors with PhDs (which I sometimes call his annual nerd-pile, but then again, “nerd” is a compliment in our house). He goes each year and we always miss him but love all the stories and energy he brings back. We have roots in Chicago and many good friends still reside there.
But this year feels different.
Anxiety is running high, with new headlines each day about COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that comes with a raft of unknowns. How lethal is it? Not sure. How contagious? Don’t know. How worried should we be? Somewhere between a lot and a little.
As the pathogen has spread, Italy is cancelling soccer games. Paris closed the Louvre. China has shut down, well, nearly everything.
Even here at home, where so far the spread of this nasty bug seems limited, we’ve started passing the peace at church with a holy elbow-bump rather than a handshake. We’ve made sure we’ve stocked an extra couple weeks’ worth of diapers and paper towels and coffee. (You know, the essentials.)
Daryl is young and healthy, a borderline germaphobe who washes his hands so often they’re usually dry and cracked, even in summer. (Best moisturizer we’ve found for this is straight-up Vaseline, btw.) He’s had his flu shot and isn’t traveling to China or Italy or Iran or South Korea, all current hotbeds for the outbreak.
Still, saying goodbye to him was hard.
A couple of months after September 11, 2001, my dad flew overseas for business and left my sisters and I each a handwritten letter and a copy of his legendary chocolate chip cookie recipe. I remember taking the letter to my mom and asking, “Does Dad think he’s going to die on that airplane?” It unsettled me beyond.
Now, as a parent myself, I get it. Travel was uncertain after 9/11. Markets plummeted. Fears rose. Uncertainty reigned. If the unthinkable happened, he wanted us to know he loved us.
As I hugged Daryl goodbye yesterday afternoon all I could think was, “He will probably be fine. Probably.”
But really? That’s all any of us ever have.
So often we feel we have agency and control, when really we do not. Some dangers can be predicted and prepared for; others cannot.
My great-grandmother lived to be 103 years old, surviving not just the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 but two World Wars, heart bypass surgery at age 90, and living in downtown Chicago where she once got mugged in the alley behind her home. Tough lady, my Gram.
Yet I have friends who have lost loved ones at ages far too young, and for reasons that don’t feel like reasons at all. When a 7-year-old succumbs to ovarian cancer or a 60-year-old to brain cancer, when a rogue wave takes the life of a 37-year-old father of six during a day at the beach, all I can do is fall to my knees and ask for God’s presence with the grieving and his mercy on us all.
Not one of us knows how long they have on this earth. Sometimes we survive against all odds; other times we perish in freak accidents or devastating illnesses or global pandemics.
Still, we may desire what the Psalmist longed for: “Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days,” he wrote. “Let me know how fleeting my life is” (Psalm 39:4). We may fear the unknown, the threat not only to our lives but to those we love and the communities and services we rely upon.
Emergencies and disasters remind us of how fragile life is. At our best, they can push us to say things that we should say anyway–to tell people we love them, to preach the Gospel with boldness, to lead with compassion and kindness, mercy and hope.
Kent Brantley, a U.S. doctor who traveled to Africa in order to help combat Ebola back in 2014 contracted the virus and almost died himself. After his recovery, when asked about
whether isolationist policies were wise in the face of new viral threats, Brantley responded: “we MUST choose compassion over fear. We must choose to respond to people (even in deadly outbreaks of infectious diseases) with actions and words and attitudes that convey compassion and uphold the dignity of our fellow human beings.”
Brantley echoes the biblical paradigm Jesus modeled, reaching out to minister to those on the margins, including people suffering from highly communicable diseases like leprosy (Matthew 5:12-13). While we don’t want to undertake undue risk—especially those of us not trained in the medical field—compassion is a key virtue in our Christian witness.
While wise planning can mitigate almost many risks (and seriously, people, WASH YOUR HANDS), nothing can protect us against every eventuality. Neither preparation nor power can save us. People paid their way onto lifeboat as the Titanic sank, but you can’t bribe a pathogen.
The coronavirus crisis reminds us all of how very weak we are. Of how very small.
Yet amidst the worries and fears, the breaking news and the general hysteria, the same, simple truth rings out. As Paul writes in Romans 14:8, “whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
A couple decades ago Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon wrote a book called Resident Aliens. It spoke to the impulse to batten down the hatches and stop having children in light of nuclear proliferation. If the world might end at any moment, the popular argument went, why bring children into it?
We hear this argument today, alongside disasters and rumors of disasters, from climate change to global war. Yet our hope remains secure. As Hauerwas and Willimon put it:
We have children as a witness that the future is not left up to us and that life, even in a threatening world, is worth living — and not because ‘Children are the hope of the future,’ but because God is the hope of the future.
I’m praying for Daryl. I’m praying for those in Wuhan, for doctors and nurses at home and abroad, for wisdom for our leaders and our laypeople. For an overabundance of hand-washing all ’round.
I’ll hold my breath a little until Daryl is back home. It feels so much easier to face things as a team rather than on my own, whether those things be a scary virus or just a scary pile of dirty dishes.
I want reassurance that he will be fine. That everything will be okay.
But this is not assurance any of us is given this side of eternity. What we have instead is Jesus, God-with-us, giver of mercy and life, not just here and now but forever.
I will stay here with Jesus. Jesus is going to Chicago with Daryl. Jesus is in Hubei province, in Syrian refugee camps, in Iranian prisons, in nursing homes in Washington state.
He is with you, too.
And that is a hope worth everything.