Rector's Ramblings July 8, 2020
Elmer heard that there was a virus spreading in his community, and he didn’t know what to make of it. His cable news programs seemed to air conflicting opinion stories. Some health experts said it was serious, and some didn’t. Early on, they said don’t wear masks, but eventually it seemed like everyone agreed on wearing masks. Almost. Politicians seemed to be conflicted, too. He wondered if it wasn’t all just hype in an election year? He’d had the flu a couple of times and it wasn’t that bad. He guessed he’d just be careful. God had always watched over him. No doubt God was watching out for him now.
When Elmer went to the pharmacy to get his prescriptions, he really didn’t pay attention to the stickers on the floor suggesting customers stay six feet apart. When the woman at the register asked him nicely to step back to the circle, he just smiled and said, “I’m not worried. God’s watching out for me.”
The next day Elmer had to go to the store. He noticed a sign on the door stating, “Masks Strongly Encouraged.” There was a nice young man just inside the door with hand sanitizer and masks, but Elmer just smiled and kept walking. “I’m not worried. God’s watching out for me. I have the freedom not to wear a mask.”
The day after that, Elmer decided he was done staying out of his favorite restaurant. He saw a lot of people out and about these days. So, he took a stool at the counter and greeted his favorite waitress, this time masked, who always knew what he wanted to order. “Sugar, where’s your mask?” She asked him. “It’s good to see you, but I worry that you’re here. You know we have take-out, right? At your age, you can’t afford to get sick!” Elmer smiled and responded, “It’s good to see you, too. I’m not worried. God’s watching out for me. I have to live my life. I’ll have the usual.”
The following day, Elmer wasn’t feeling great when he got up. Not terrible, just not great. He attributed it to a poor night’s sleep. He went back to the pharmacy to get more ibuprofen, and he decided to stop by the grocery store for a few things he forgot earlier in the week. More mask, more dots on the floor, and more smiles from Elmer. By the time he got home, Elmer was really tired. He also felt a little hot, but figured it was the heat and the humidity. He’d have to take it easy the rest of the day.
Over the next week, Elmer felt worse and worse. His daughter, who lived out of town, was worried about his cough and his fever, so she called the neighbor to come check on him. He managed to convince Elmer to let him take him to urgent care. Elmer noticed the neighbor wore a mask. “Oh well”, he thought, “to each his own.” The face shields at the clinic were a bit shocking to Elmer, and he was surprised when they put him in a special area as soon as he arrived. They’d never done that before.
The doctor at the clinic told Elmer that he was going to test him for the virus that was going around, and that he’d check a few more things. “Elmer, you need to stay home until we call you with the results. If you have trouble breathing, you’ll need to go to the emergency room right away.” Elmer hoped he didn’t have the virus. Maybe it was as bad as those negative people on the news, he thought.
The day after Elmer went to urgent care, he couldn’t catch his breath and he had a terrible cough. His daughter called and when she heard him, she insisted he hang up the phone and call an ambulance. He tried to argue, but he knew that was the right thing to do, so he did. Elmer remembered getting checked in and all the nurses wearing those pretty blue gowns. But that’s about the last thing he remembered. Until he found himself standing in front of a shining person who must be God.
“God, is that you?” Elmer asked. “Yes, Elmer. Welcome home,” the person said. “What happened?” Elmer asked. “You contracted the virus, and you didn’t make it,” the beautiful person said, “and now you’re here with me.” Elmer thought about that for a moment. “God,” he began, “you’ve always watched over me. Why didn’t you take care of me this time?” The person standing before Elmer put its hands on his shoulders and smiled. “Elmer, what did you want? I sent you as many messages as I could. There were the reports, the woman at the pharmacy, the nice young man in the store, and your favorite waitress. They were helping me watch out for you, by recommending you keep your distance for a while, that you wear a mask, and suggesting you stay home for the worst of it. I was watching out for you, as I always have.”
When I first thought of this story, I had in mind the joke that I’ve told in sermons about the old man who knows the flood is coming but turns down an offer of a ride in a jeep, then a boat, and finally, a helicopter, because he just knows God will take care of him. When he meets God at the Pearly Gates, he has a similar conversation to the one at the end of my story. In that context, it’s funny. People laugh. A lot. It’s one of my favorites because it’s one that people seem to like so well. As I thought about a parabolic retelling of the joke, it didn’t seem as funny though. Not at all, really. And that says something to me. It highlights a response to this pandemic that is laughable, but not funny at all.
From the time this pandemic started I have taken it seriously. I think many of you know this already. Not out of a fear for myself, but because I know and love so many persons who are at-risk for severe medical outcomes or even death if they get COVID. Personal choices are fine, to a point, but pandemics require a different mindset. All the precautions we took in our community in the early months of this pandemic were to avoid what we’re seeing right now, and it is a direct result of a lot of persons choosing not to follow what should be relatively simple, reasonable guidelines to help keep us all safer.
There is a way for us to keep on living with this pandemic. Living with it doesn’t look like life in January of this year, but it could be a whole lot better than it is now. Indoor groups are not a good idea for the foreseeable future, at least until we get things a bit more under control. Masks aren’t perfect, nor is distancing by six feet in some circumstances. Washing hands is a good thing anytime. Altogether, though, if we would all just follow these recommendations, we’d have a very good system of mitigating risk and allowing things to be closer to normal. It’s likely that we could get back to regular worship, safer trips to the store, outdoor dining and continued take-out, and other modified versions of the life we used to have. When so many Elmers out there don’t take it seriously, though, we get what we’re seeing right now. It doesn’t work if the majority don’t make an effort, and we end up going backwards.
We’ve had to delay restarting in-person worship because our local outbreak is one of the most severe in the country at present. Some local businesses and restaurants are closing again. This will, in turn, mean more folks out of work again. The most worrisome thing is that our hospital is getting busier by the day, with patients who need special care because of the side effects of this virus. The lag in hospitalizations after infection means we haven’t yet seen the peak at the hospital – we haven’t seen the peak of infections yet anyway. I fear what July holds for our community in the aftermath of the recent holiday weekend. A lot of what we’ve seen so far is attributable to post Memorial Day Weekend crowds, which don’t seem to have let up.
I don’t like not being together in community for worship. It’s terrible, in fact. The motivation to delay restarting is our concern for all of you and for our community. Every risk evaluation of various activities I’ve seen in the last two months has consistently listed in-person worship, particularly indoor in-person worship, as some of the highest risk activity we can engage in, when it comes to aiding the spread of this virus. Politicians tell us we can gather for church, but I’ve yet to speak to a health expert who says we should. I can’t explain why some churches are moving forward with plans to be fully open in the near future. Most of the pastors I know here, and elsewhere, are approaching this a lot like I am. Some who reopened here in June quickly shut down again in July. The risk is just too high right now. Sometimes, the proper response is to retreat from this virus.
There are some who say, “I’m willing to take the risk!” I understand that passion for getting “back” to church (the church has never closed, just our buildings). Given the specifics of this virus, however, it’s not just about us as individuals. The risk isn’t just ours. We’re seeing that play out here and now in a way that is making this pandemic very personal after so many months of watching it from afar. Thousands in our community (including tourists from out of town, who can’t shoulder all the blame) are willing to take risks too, apparently, and they are, in turn, getting thousands of others sick. That’s how it works. We can spread it before we know we’re sick. We can spread it even if we don’t ever get sick. We have to stop thinking about ourselves first. Jesus didn’t preach about pandemics, but his message was consistently similar: quit thinking about yourself first!
As this pandemic ebbs and flows, it’s not just about at-risk folks anymore. Nearly a third of hospitalizations in Georgia have been for people my age or younger, most of them recent, as it has spread through younger generations must faster. The goal has always been to protect the hospital systems around the country from being overwhelmed. That’s our goal now. We cannot stop the virus without vaccinations. The best we can do is slow it down, and we know how to do that. By slowing it down, we can all live with manageable levels of risk.
We mitigate risk every day without living in fear. We wear seatbelts, take medications, drive the speed limit (or close to it), go through airport screenings, wear sunscreen – we do a lot of things like this. Some are designed to protect us, and some are designed to protect others. I grew up with “No shirt, no shoes, no service” signs. I’ve been to restaurants and clubs with dress codes. Rarely do we hear about infringement on our rights for most of these things, but masks seem to put us over the edge now that they have been politicized. We do have freedom. Blessedly. That freedom first comes from God, and God set us free ultimately to love and serve one another. We’re staying home from church for a little longer because we love you and we love our community.
As soon as we think the risk can be minimized appropriately, we will find a way to worship with anyone who wants to come. We have the plan; we’re just waiting for the right time to implement it. That will happen much sooner, if we all continue to wash our hands, stay home as much as we can, keep our distance from others when we’re out, and wear masks when we’re around people we don’t live with. Slowly but steadily, this message will get out to others who seem resistant to data and facts. I know that in the meantime, our hearts yearn for some kind of worship in common. We’ll get there. If I could will this pandemic away, I would. Instead it’s forcing me – each of us – to conform to its influence. We have to find a way to live alongside it. And we must live alongside it - it’s going to be here for a while.
Collectively, we’ve lived through worse before and we will get through this. God has guided us through wars, famine, depressions, and so much more. God is watching out for us now, just as God always has.
We are not people of fear:
we are people of courage.
We are not people who protect our own safety:
we are people who protect our neighbours’ safety.
We are not people of greed:
we are people of generosity.
We are your people God,
giving and loving,
wherever we are,
whatever it costs
For as long as it takes
wherever you call us.
Barbara Glasson, President of the Methodist Conference, England
Photo credit: Free for use without attribution from pixaby.com