April 1

April 1
by Pastor Jim

“For God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control.”
2 Timothy 1:7

“For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 8:38-39

So how are we doing?  How are you doing?

As I write, the number of COVID-19 cases in our area is still doubling every 3-4 days — quadrupling every week.  3,000 as I write, perhaps 12,000 as you read if we haven’t “bent the curve” by then.

Most of us understand exponential growth rates and what this means statistically. What does it mean for you emotionally?  Spiritually?  How is your faith holding up under a steady barrage of news stories hyping increasing levels of anxiety and fear and hoarding and profiteering?

The other day, I came across a thoughtful perspective regarding fear and the follower of Jesus.  It was written by Michael Horton, professor of Theology & Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California.  It’s too long to share (click here if you want to read it), but I was struck by three quotations from within his article regarding how people of faith who have gone before us have behaved in times equally grave.  You will know their names: Martin Luther and John Calvin, during the plagues of Europe, and C S Lewis when facing the terror of the new threat of his day, the atomic bomb.

In the face of the plague, Luther was asked how he was going to respond.  He replied.

I shall ask God mercifully to protect us.  Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it.  I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.  If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others.  If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above.  See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.(1)

Harry Reeder III describes how John Calvin later reacted during a period when the plague struck Geneva on five separate occasions:

During the first outbreak, in 1542, Calvin personally led visitations into plague-infected homes. Knowing that this effort likely carried a death sentence, the city fathers intervened to stop him because of their conviction that his leadership was indispensable. The pastors continued this heroic effort under Calvin’s guidance, and they recounted the joy of multiple conversions. Many pastors lost their lives in this cause. Unknown to many, Calvin privately continued his own pastoral care in Geneva and other cities where the plague raged. Calvin’s pastoral heart, already evidenced by the provision of hospitals for both citizens and immigrants, was further revealed as he collected the necessary resources to establish a separate hospital for plague victims. When believers died, he preached poignant funeral homilies with passion and personal concern. (2)

What strikes me is not a suggestion that one should ignore the wisdom of social distancing (which today is designed not merely to protect the individual but the whole society, after all).  Rather, what strikes me is the calm assurance with which Luther and Calvin faced the fact that death could be very near and yet carried on their daily lives.  So certain were they of their standing as children of God with a sure future hope that they remained calm when those without that conviction could not.

The great fear in the age of C S Lewis was the new atomic bomb — certainly potentially more devastating than either the plague or COVID-19.  In 1948, Lewis responded, in the face of extreme public anxiety, with the calm perspective afforded people who know their lives are in God’s good hands:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us are going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes to find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. (3)

Ah yes; a microbe.  Which brings me back to our present situation.

Even today there are those who have, and can inspire us with, a firm grip upon the fact that God has his firm grip upon us; there are those whose lives are thus so changed as to make a difference in the lives of others.  Today, I read of the death of a 71 year old Italian priest named Don Giuseppe Berardelli while in the hospital suffering from COVID-19.  It was noted by one of my favorite columnists, Leonard Pitts, Jr., in the San Jose Mercury News and it was nothing complicated or overly dramatic. Pitts, after describing some of the over-hyped drama of today, notes:

Against the blare and bleat of all that, it is no surprise this obscure death made little impression. But it’s worth noting just the same. You see, Father Berardelli died after he gave away his respirator. The life-saving device had been bought for him by his parishioners. But he insisted it go instead to a younger patient who was struggling to breathe, a person the priest did not know.

The obvious biblical maxim leaps to mind: John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”(4)

The whole column may be found here and it concludes as follows:

You’ll find no grand, summarizing moral here. Instead, let’s close by simply noting that there was no funeral for the priest — they’re not doing funerals in Italy these days. But it is said that when his casket rolled through the village, people applauded from their windows and balconies. It was a quiet acknowledgment of a quiet death.(4)

I have no indication that Pitts is a Christian, but clearly this simple, selfless act by an unknown follower of Jesus did not go unnoticed by him.  May our lives, and someday even our deaths, be marked by a similar impact upon, and witness to, others — especially those who may not know Jesus but are noting carefully how his people react in times of fear and anxiety.

(1)  Luther’s Works 43:132
(2)  Harry L. Reeder III, “Calvin and the Plague,” in John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Discipleship, ed. Burk Parsons (Lake Mary, Fla.: Reformation Trust, 2008), 65.
(3)  C. S. Lewis, “On Living in an Atomic Age,”in Present Concerns (Harvest Books, 2002), 78-80.
(40 San Jose Mercury News, March 26, 2020, page A9.

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