If you are like most Americans, by now you know someone who has tested positive for coronavirus. Initially there is shock, generally followed by fear, and then there is the waiting to see how the symptoms progress.
I am writing this during the Advent season, which is known as the season of waiting. Waiting for the light of Christ and for that babe in the Bethlehem manger to be born and celebrated. For many of us though it is either the waiting for test results or waiting to see what long-term effects may be on loved ones have after being told they have likely cleared COVID-19.
These Advent, Christmas and Epiphany seasons — like so much of 2020 — are undeniably different, despite the fact we all desperately want it to be the same. Traditions hold a sense of comfort, right? Especially when all our worlds have been collectively turned upside down so abruptly.
Therefore, it makes sense for faith communities to want so desperately to gather. The recent Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in rejecting New York Governor Cuomo’s restrictions on houses of worship in areas of high positivity rates really exposed the division over this very issue.
Some took to social media to express outrage over the decision and some even wrote that those houses of worship that wanted to stay open it was simply an economic decision rather than a faith-filled one.
One letter to the editor published in The New York Times read, “My response to people who demand religious freedom in our current high-risk environment is ‘Your religious liberty ends where the danger to my health begins.’”
Indeed, the whole debate over and the rejection of local health officials’ guidance is on full display all over the country. Even in my town, church parking lots on Sunday mornings have been seen near capacity. But what does this say about religion and science? Does our faith protect us from our own best intentions? If I still attend church during the pandemic does it mean I don’t “believe” in science?
One of President-Elect Biden’s Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board members is epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm, who is also a member of an ELCA congregation in the Minneapolis area.
Back in May on a Zoom call in his home synod, he started off by saying, “First of all when I deal with issues on pandemics and what happens, I want to know what God was thinking when she did that. I have got to admit there are times when you think of faith, but this is one of challenge.”
He saw what was coming way before the rest of us could comprehend this current surge. We all feel challenged, particularly how to be the church when we are unable to gather for fear of being infected. Even ELCA pastors not holding in-person services have tested positive, which shatters any illusion of safety from this deadly virus.
Where can one find some sort of solace and comfort in such uncertainty? Do we simply place put our faith life on hold while scientists work 24/7 to produce therapies and vaccines? Or can we who now feel ‘churchless’ find community even when we can’t meet together? Is the church really church, when it’s moved online?
Osterholm in his May Zoom call with his synod’s bishop spoke of the possibility of this secondary surge. “Like gravity works for physical items it is the same gravity for this virus,” said Osterholm in discussing how the pandemic may end or how we reach 60% to 70% immunity – the so-called ‘herd immunity’ benchmark.
Back in March, the ELCA released its resources for in-home and virtual worship, saying, “When anxiety is high in our culture, worship continues to be a primary location for the proclamation both of the good news of Jesus Christ and of the continuing compassion and care of God in the midst of our humanity. It is a place where we can find solace and reassurance in the midst of our fears.”
These resources and the realization by churchwide leadership early on indeed provided clarity. Even as the offices of the ELCA are currently closed, there are still resources being produced to help churches maintain some sense of normal.
And those of us on our living room couch ‘pews’ are most thankful for their thoughtful work that has respected the science of this pandemic.
We may all agree that this virus is challenging us on all fronts, but we can take comfort that our faith still has a home, while we too are stuck at home. Not only for us to heal from the virus, prevent unintended spread, and think of others and their safety, but in literally loving our neighbors as ourselves.
I will end with a prayer for times of COVID-19, as posted on the ELCA website:
Gracious God, it is good for us to gather as your beloved in community. We treasure your presence with us in word and meal, song and prayer. Be with us in these days when gathering together as often as we would like is not possible. When we must be apart for reasons of safety, we trust that you surround us with your sheltering wings. Encourage us in connecting as we are able, reaching out to our neighbors in need and being persistent in prayer. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our constant companion.