A pandemic has never been prayed away. It is not the result of human sin. It can only be fought by changes in our behavior and science, and we know that until our scientists develop treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19 that our behavioral changes must include washing our hands, not touching our faces, staying at home, not gathering in groups outside of our immediate family units, and venturing out only for essential errands. We must do all of these things and more to flatten the curve in relation to the spread of the virus so that our healthcare workers and systems are not stretched beyond their limits. Hundreds of thousands of lives, perhaps millions of lives over time, are in the balance.
We are social animals. We are persons-in-community. We are meant to be together and to interact with one another. What we are being asked to do to flatten the curve and slow the spread of COVID-19 does not come naturally for us. Sheltering in place is a sacrifice – a personal, social, economic, and spiritual sacrifice; but it is a sacrifice that we must make if we are save to the lives of our neighbors from this horrific virus.
In the United States, we have a disturbing situation in some states in which churches are being designated as “essential services” and allowed to be exempt from the prohibitions on holding gatherings. A small minority of churches are making the tragic decision to continue meeting together in person in spite of the warnings coming from our public health experts. Perhaps in some cases it is a combination of scientific illiteracy coupled with confusion caused by some of our leaders’ early downplaying of the crisis and their “aspirational” remarks about churches being open again by Easter. Perhaps in other cases, it is an example of the greed of ministers who believe that without persons in the pews, there will be less money in the offering plate. Whatever the reasons may be, continued gatherings in churches during a global pandemic are a danger to us all.
The reality is that we are not loving our neighbors if our churches are still meeting in person; and if we are not loving our neighbor, we are not loving God. Packing our churches, even on Easter, would be the absolute worst way to witness to the love of Jesus this year. If on Easter morning 2020 we have packed churches, I envision that on Easter afternoon 2020 Jesus will weep. For Easter and many Sundays to come, loving our neighbor means celebrating the empty tomb with an empty church. Right now the empty church is a symbol of hope and resurrection for our world.
During this extremely challenging time, love must practice the paradox that to be truly present for one another we must be physically distant from one another. If we cannot show that we are capable of surviving having empty sanctuaries for a period of time to help save each other from COVID-19, then we don’t deserve to have full sanctuaries when the dangers of the virus have passed. I pray that we will have enough love for each other to change our behavior for the sake of all of our neighbors until it is once again safe to gather together hand in hand.