Monday, April 6, 2020

A Theology of Pandemic

The Passion of Our Lord

COVID-19 has done more than create a health scare.  It has also spawned a theological scare.  We shouldn’t be surprised.  When something bad happens we always want to know why.  What did I do (or what did we do) (or what did you do) to deserve this?  And bad theology is like a virus in that it spreads quickly and is difficult to contain.  Answers to what the pandemic means theologically appear to go in one of three directions. 

The first two possibilities hold God did this for a specific reason.  Some suggest it is a punishment, others say it is a corrective, and still others believe it is God’s way of trying to get our attention.  Whatever the purpose, this first possibility asserts God knows what God is doing and as such each and every person gets what God intends.  Those who get sick and die get what God intends for them.  Those who get sick and recover get what God intends for them.  Those who don’t get sick, but lose their job get what God intends for them.  Often this theological approach is favored by those who are spared because it answers for them the fundamental question of why you and not me.

The second alternative holds God is the author of the pandemic, but does not control its impact on specific people.  The disease is arbitrary, affecting good and bad people indiscriminately.  Yes, God has a reason for creating the pandemic, but no, God does not select who to afflict and who to spare. There is neither a rhyme nor a reason to what happens to whom as far as God is concerned.  Whatever happens happens. 

I reject both of these alternatives.  They just make God seem to be vindictive and petty.  Sure, the earliest biblical stories present the Holy One in an unflattering light (such as when God floods the entire earth after reaching a point of utter exasperation with human wickedness) but, as God’s people interact with God over time and reflect on events and their meaning, God’s people begin to reject this kind of thinking.  The destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent Exile in Babylon teaches God’s people they have suffered far beyond anything they reasonably deserve.  As a result they reject the notion God uses evil for a purpose.  The story of Job is the ultimate critique of the old school thinking.  The measure of ill that befalls Job cannot be traced to anything he did or anything God desires.  It just happens.

Those of us in the Christian tradition hold Jesus is the full and complete revelation of God’s very Nature and Being.  If you want to know what God is like then look no farther than Jesus.  Here is what Jesus says about God:

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved (John 3:17)

If God does not visit damnation on us, but rather desires our salvation, this opens the door to a third theological answer to the pandemic.  It is not of God.  It just is.  Now, we may not like the thought our world and our existence is so random, but – in truth – it is.

Not that we are without our influences.  There are many things we do right and reap the rewards.  These are the things we merit and earn.  And then there are good things we receive which we did not work for.  We call this luck, good fortune, and grace.  There are times we do the wrong thing and pay the consequences.  Bad decisions and poor choices have a way of coming home to roost.  And there are times we do the wrong thing and avoid any fallout.  All of this is to say we have a tremendous ability to influence the direction of our lives and what we experience for good or for ill as a result.  Still, stuff happens.  Good stuff we don’t deserve and bad stuff we do not desire.

From a theological perspective, I think the pandemic falls under the category of paying the consequences for bad decisions.  The threat of this kind of a pandemic has been known for some time.  In fact, back in the day, the experts told us it is only a matter of time.  We could have been better prepared, but we weren’t.  Leadership did not make it a priority, and if they had, we in the public would have voted them out of office.  Well, the world has changed!

So, if God is neither the source nor the one directing how it unfolds, what role does God play in all of this?  I a few moments we will pray today’s Collect.  We will acknowledge God, in God’s tender love for the human race, sent the Son into the world to take on our nature and to suffer death upon the cross that we might have an example of great humility to emulate.  We call this example “walking in the way of the Cross.”  Where is God in the midst of this pandemic?  How is God with us?  As God always is… in the midst of us as we follow the example of Jesus’ great humility. 

Now, this is nice, liturgical, theological language, but what does it look like lived out in my life or in yours?

If you follow our daily services you know on Wednesday morning I mentioned my car wouldn’t start and I half-jokingly asked for your prayers.  Right after the service Cindy asked me what I was going to do about my car.  I told her I was going to sit and do nothing for a while to see if my problem would just evaporate.  How did she respond?  Let’s just say Cindy and I have different management styles!  Then a little while later Toni Reynolds reached out to me and asked if I would like Jim’s help.  Ya-hoo!  It took some doing, but Jim got my car to start and off I went to the dealership to get it serviced. 

Unfortunately they could not work on my car until the next day, so I made an appointment and then drove around for a while hoping to charge my battery.  That night, at Evening Prayer, I told you all the story and then jokingly said, “I asked God for help and God sent Jim Reynolds.  When was the last time Jim Reynolds was the answer to someone’s prayer?”

Well, Thursday morning my car would not start.  This time I turned to Al Reese and his car, but try as we might we could not get the engine to turn over.  So, who do I call?  Jim Reynolds.  Not only did he get my car started, he also brought me some of Toni’s delicious baked spaghetti to enjoy at dinner!  We got to talking about my statement “When was the last time Jim was the answer to someone’s prayer.”  Jim said, “I got to thinking and I wonder if maybe I should not be praying to God for me and what I need, but rather should be praying, ‘Here I am God.  How can you use me today?’” 

That is such a great perspective.  It is, in a nutshell, what it means to walk in the way of the Cross, to seek to live with great humility.  “Lord, how can I be the answer to another person’s prayer?”  It is not about what you need, but about what you have to offer.  I didn’t need God to start my car.  I needed Jim.  God didn’t need to do a miracle.  God needed Jim to come and help me… twice!  And God’s world, especially right now, needs an awful lot: everything from spiritual comfort to automobile maintenance.  And God’s Spirit is at work to mobilize every one of us so that the needs of the world can be met.

The message of the Passion of our Lord is this: when the world was at its worst Jesus was at his best.  Pilate, Herod, Judas, Caiaphas, Peter, the mob… what a shameful moment.  If God’s Nature contains even an iota of vindictiveness this is the time we would see it.  But we don’t, because it is not in God’s Nature.  What we see is God’s self-offering.  Jesus gives himself to us even when we are at our worst. 

So, ultimately, what is my theology of pandemic?  These times are some of the worst we have lived through and God is present with us to help us to be at our best.  God waits for each of us to ask, “How can you use me today?”  With our consent, God is able to muster a movement of compassion even greater than the challenges we face.