Rector's Ramblings March 25, 2020
When I was a child, I had the sense that God was watching me all the time to make sure I was behaving. Sort of like Santa or the now-popular Elf on the Shelf, who keeps a tally of behavior to see who is naughty or nice. As I got older, I realized that wasn’t really how I thought the relationship worked, and as an adult I realize that such a mindset is simply unhealthy for a mature faith. Instead, somewhere along the way, most of us develop a sense of doing what the right thing is because it’s the right thing, not because someone (God, parent, government, etc.) is watching.
And yet. Sometimes we don’t do what is best or right. Sometimes we do what we want without giving thought to the consequences. Sometimes we do what we want, knowing we act outside of what is expected of us. This is the realm of things done and left undone, intentionally or unintentionally. It’s also the subject of a part of our Lenten journey. We have a need to be self-reflective and honest about what we do, and how what we do affects other people and other dynamics of the world around us. We also do well to consider how all of it relates to God.
The Ten Commandments, for example are largely a set of rules to govern how we get along with one another, outlining what is appropriate and holy. The first three are about honoring God, and the last six are about honoring relationships with one another. It’s the foundation of doing what’s right and good. But what about when we don’t know exactly what the right and good thing is? Sometimes, when people think and act differently than we do, we label it as sin, our religious shorthand for wrong. That isn’t always helpful.
There are many things that we don’t have religious “laws” or doctrine to address. One of the things we sometimes hear Jesus criticize in the Gospels is a system of strict laws and the practice of meeting the letter of the law only. At the end of the day, the real goal is to understand the spirit of the law and act as faithfully as we can. We can and do look to sources of authority in the church. This includes what scripture says, what the traditions of the Church have been over time, and then balancing that with what we know and experience through scientific revelation and experience. It’s a complex dance that is ongoing in our culture, in the church, and in our own lives.
Today I watched our County Commissioners struggle through their meeting as they ultimately approved an emergency measure to strengthen and continue some social distancing practices in our community. Part of the debate is weighing how heavy a hand this or any level of government should take. Can we not rely on common sense? Won’t people understand what is right and good for their neighbor? Do we need to force and enforce the issues? Ultimately, of course, they decided, yes. And they aren’t wrong. There are times in our lives where we do need the “letter of the law” to help keep us on track. Or at least give our willful selves a nudge to settle down or stop and think.
I’m not suggesting that people who go out during this time of social distancing are sinful, and I leave it to the authorities to determine legality. There are ways to go out safely, following recommendations, and orders. If we do go out, it should be only for what is essential. I am still going into the church, following safe guidelines, and knowing that it is not currently a public space or place where groups are gathering. For now, my assessment is that some worship offerings are essential, as long as they are done safely. I plan to continue to offer Communion Under Special Circumstances as long as we can. I heard from a local infectious disease specialist that our precautions, as long as parishioners follow them, are appropriate. If that changes as the advice changes, we will stop. I am also planning to follow guidelines and continue to prohibit group gatherings, to prevent the group spread that has proven so deadly in other communities. The overall point is that the right and good thing for now is to limit outings, limit contact, and act as though we are already infected.
That last part is the best way for us to determine what appropriate behavior may be at this time. In truth, we could be carriers for COVID-19 before we ever show symptoms, so the safest thing to do is to act like we are already carrying it. If we knew we were sick, would we touch public doorknobs? Pump gas? Visit friends? Probably not. We know what the right thing is in those cases. I would say it’s common sense, but it seems there are different understandings of what constitutes common sense in this world. Which is why God made some rules, why we have laws, and why communities are putting temporary restrictions on what we can do and where we can go.
In our tradition “common” means communal or community, not normal or ordinary. Maybe our understanding of common is the kind of common sense we need now? Decision-making based on the common good? That sounds right and it definitely seems appropriate. We shouldn’t really act this way only because God is watching or the law says so, but because that’s what followers of Jesus do: we act with love towards one another in all things. This is the spirit of the law – of all laws. We remember that everyone is our neighbor, and that every neighbor deserves the love, safety, and security we want for ourselves. That’s our core calling as Christians.
These are strange days with no parallel. We must be common in our prayer, in our care, and in our actions. We’re literally all in this together, a lesson that will no doubt take some longer to learn than others.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you taught us to love our neighbor,
and to care for those in need
as if we were caring for you.
In this time of anxiety, give us strength
to comfort the fearful, to tend the sick,
and to assure the isolated
of our love, and your love,
for your name’s sake.
(Church of England)