In the midst of presidential elections and Daylight Saving Time (which is this Sunday, March 8, by the way), the topic on everyone’s mind is COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus. It certainly has been on mine. Part of it, of course, is my concern for my own health. But the larger part is my concern for how we manage the situation at church, much as other places where people gather in significant numbers on a regular basis have to do.
We are fortunate in Birmingham that no cases of the virus have been detected in our city to this point, though that fact could have changed by the time you read this column. From what the experts say, however, widespread occurrences are inevitable and the time to be making preparations is now.
I’ve reached out to a number of folk who are far more informed than I about the situation, one of whom, Leland Allen, an infectious disease physician, is in our church. The recurring thread I have heard from Leland and others in the field is that our response to this current health challenge should be based on an equal measure of faith and fact, and we would be better served to minimize the fear that seems to be doing its best to control our present conversation. Good science and good faith are the keys to making it through this time. Fear will likely cause us to miss opportunities to be the presence of Christ at a time when our world is in the most need of such a witness.
One of the best words of advice I have heard in recent days came from a mayor of a major U.S. city, who in a recent interview when pressed to give direction, offered this one: “Live your life.” He followed up that counsel with the recommended precautions – wash your hands; refrain from touching your face, mouth, and nose; practice appropriate social distancing; go to your doctor if you feel symptomatic – but concluded his counsel one last time with that simple but most empowering direction: “Live your life.” I heard it as a reminder not to allow fear to get in the way of faith and facts.
So, let’s begin with the facts as the experts see them. The risk of becoming infected is still low in our neck of the woods. For those who are or will become infected, the mortality rate is also low, and significantly so. Lastly, while outbreaks are still occurring in many parts of our world and our country, in places like China, where the outbreak began, the infection rate is declining.
Those are the facts; now, let’s turn to our faith. Nothing about this present situation has been a surprise to God. While we certainly should act responsibly in our everyday life, we can do so in the confidence that God still is in control of the future. In fact, this time is a good one to keep in mind how in every instance God seems to show up in people’s anxious and uncertain circumstances in the Bible, the first word He gives is almost always, “Fear not.”
As far as church life goes, we’ll certainly be monitoring the situation and along the way you’ll see a few changes. For example, for the foreseeable future it’s probably a good thing for us to cut back on handshaking and hugging and show our love for one another by waving and simply speaking to one another. Moreover, if you’re not feeling well, there’s no need for you to feel guilty about missing church until you feel better. You can enjoy participating with us in worship by way of our live stream on our church’s website. Know that when you do come to church, our staff has taken extra precautions to make sure that the surfaces on our counters and guard rails are regularly cleaned and sanitized. As the situation develops, we’ll continue to be open to ways to manage our common life and faith. In the meantime, be certain that we’re aware of the situation and doing our best to respond (not react) to it.
I learned long ago that every crisis contains remarkable opportunity. I only hope that we can find ways of seizing those opportunities that are a part of this potential one so that our church can continue to show ourselves as an exemplary congregation, one that in the face of every challenge finds creative and compelling ways to love God and live with grace and generosity.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).