Lenten Devotional Day 18

March 14, 2020

Lent & the Wuhan Virus

I Corinthians 13

How serious is the Wuhan virus, or if you prefer the Corona virus, or if you like scientific sounding labels the Covid 19 virus?  The truth is that no one knows exactly, but the indications are that it will fall somewhere between the garden variety flu and a bad cold, perhaps even less severe for most folks.  This devotional reflection is not about this latest health care challenge, but something far more important.

As I have listened to so much of the chatter and opining from various sources on T.V. and the Internet, again and again I have heard how important it will be for folks to practice “social distancing” and semi-isolation practices to protect oneself from the possibility of infection.  This advice is not given, let me emphasize, to those who have already contracted the virus in order to protect others from oneself.  No, this advice is given to those who are not yet infected that they might reduce drastically their chances of coming down with the Wuhan virus blues or worse.  Preparation involves, as well, buying all the sanitizer and toilet paper you can.

Wanting to avoid unnecessary sickness is very normal, but all the angst has got me to thinking about our immediate reactions to “threats” like this latest upper respiratory disease; and pondering how those reactions might reveal something about our faith in Christ.  Let me explain why I say that.

During the 14th century, Europe was ravaged by a cruel and brutal pandemic commonly known as the Black Death.  No one knew its cause, and of course there was no cure for it.  Plenty of finger-pointing took place.  And as usual the poor suffered a greater number of deaths, partly because there were so many poor people.  After the plague ran its course for this first outbreak, a tremendous number of people turned to God through the Christian faith.  

The reasons are numerous, of course, that can explain such outbreaks of religious fervor and renewed spiritual hunger; and one can never rule out the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the aftermath of the terrors.  One reality, however, stands out to me.  During the plague, Christian monks and nuns were especially hard hit for a simple reason.  They were the ones who went into the places where the suffering and the infectious were located.  Why?  They went to these places for the sake of caring for the sick and the helpless.  Without any actual hope that healing could happen for the suffering, they simply went to them to care for them and comfort them and pray for them as they imploded into the inevitable, awful death that was at work in them.

In many instances, the sick were abandoned by their own families, due to the understandable fear of not only death, but especially death as the Black Plague brought.  (Warning vivid language ahead…from christianitytoday.com).  First came

“headache and a general feeling of weakness, followed by aches and chills in the upper leg and groin, a white coating on the tongue, rapid pulse, slurred speech confusion, fatigue, apathy, and a staggering gait. A blackish pustule usually will form at the point of the flea bite. By the third day, the lymph nodes begin to swell … The heart begins to flutter rapidly as it tries to pump blood through swollen, suffocating tissues. Subcutaneous hemorrhaging occurs, causing purplish blotches on the skin. The victim’s nervous system begins to collapse, causing dreadful pain and bizarre neurological disorders.… By the fourth or fifth day, wild anxiety and terror overtake the sufferer—and then a sense of resignation, as the skin blackens and the rictus of death settles on the body.”

These were the symptoms that those Christian monks and nuns “ran toward” (to use a military metaphor regarding the sound of gun fire).  They went to care, knowing they could not do anything except be there.  No doubt, if they had the advantages of modern medicines, they would have taken those.  But they did not have those.  Another thing they did not have was the modern sensibility that we all live with today that a trouble-free life is a kind of expectation we should anticipate, since technology can address so many things. So, they had to know about being spiritually courageous. This meant that they knew something even more important, which is easy for us either to forget or perhaps never learn in the first place…we 21st century Christians.  The lesson?  We are the only presence of God that people may ever encounter.  Our love may be the only hope that people ever see? Our self-giving confidence in the grace of God may be all the exposure to Christ’s glory they encounter.

Those Catholic monks and nuns perhaps had aspects of their theology that we modern Evangelicals and Wesleyans might find troublesome.  No doubt.  But, there can be little doubt that they had a faith in the meaning of life and the purpose of their vocations as Christians and the calling of God upon their lives that we may very well lack.  Self-giving care for others is the greatest way we can live into Christ’s life.  Self-surrendering concern for others is critical for a life that wants to grow close to Jesus.  Prayer is wonderful and necessary.  Scripture reading is glorious and irreplaceable.  Worshipful experiences are edifying and beatific.  But, without a life that is concerned for others these are, as St Paul says, “a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.”

While wisdom is important, social isolation is not an option for Christians…ever… if that means self-centered living and forgetting about others.  These monks and nuns apparently believed that God could be trusted, even if trusting him in the care of others cost them their own lives — as it in fact did in most cases.  Perhaps they took all the care they could to protect themselves, as they should have.  Perhaps they had great fear, as they no doubt did. Yet, lacking all the advantages that we enjoy, they loved others more than their own lives.

So, the Wuhan virus has caused me to wonder a lot about my own faith.  How much do I really love Jesus?  Enough to refuse to protect myself, if that protection involves social isolation and forgetting my neighbor?

Maybe the thing I should give up for Lent is hoarding sanitizer, toilet paper, and myself.

Steve Blakemore, Ph.D
Steve Blakemore, Ph.D
Dr. Blakemore is a co-founder of the JCW Center and the Professor of Christian Thought at Wesley Biblical Seminary.