The Story of 2020, Part Two

by Glenn on November 26, 2020

Note: A version of the following appeared previously in an email I sent to my congregation this past summer.

Previously I wrote about the coronavirus.

It’s a difficult disease to manage because you’re contagious before you’re symptomatic, and you may never become symptomatic. As a disease it’s not a big deal, unless it’s a big deal, and then it can be a pretty big deal. To keep it from becoming a public health crisis, you need to act early, when it doesn’t look like a problem.

You can contain it when a small number of people have it, but if you don’t, then it becomes about mitigation, which is where we’ve been the last seven months, and may continue to be for some time. (In fairness, it did take medical professionals some time to realize that the coronavirus was being spread person-to-person.)

The coronavirus was a lot to deal with. And continues to be. Part of the story of this year is that we had a hard time finding common ground and holding on to the center. Somewhere we lost the spirit of “we’re all in this together.”

We have even felt this in the Church (not so much our congregation, but in the larger Church). There were some on one end of the spectrum who said (and continue to say) that they weren’t going to wear masks or maintain distance from others. Some have called this a “scamdemic” or a “plandemic,” suggesting conspiracies and/or no actual health problem. They maintain that the Church as well as the general economy should be business as usual. On the other end of the spectrum, there are churches that are effectively closed.

We have been trying a middle way. We want to obey the scriptures which remind us not to be “giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25) and be part of the efforts to mitigate the disease—wearing masks and keeping our physical distance. To me this seems reasonable. We don’t want to live in fear. But we don’t want to be foolish, either. In the same way that you would sneeze into your elbow so as not to pass on your cold to people around you, it seems both loving and wise not to pass on the coronavirus, made more difficult because you will spread it before you have it, if you ever become aware that you had it.

This is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t have opinions on the handling of this public health crisis. I’ve been pretty vocal in saying that we need better testing in this country. First of all, we need an easier and quicker test. (One of the members of my congregation had one of those early tests. He said something about the feeling of someone scratching his brain.) But a lot of problems would be solved if we had a way to test, even at home, and know if we are sick or have been sick.

And we need to trust our leadership. The most famous example is the prominent doctor and government spokesman who told us early on not to worry about masks. But now he says we should wear masks. His story was that he was worried that there wouldn’t be enough masks for medical professionals if everyone went out to buy them. So did he lie? What are we to make of his words now?

I’ll try to avoid a rant, here.

All this to say, we had plenty to deal with and we weren’t necessarily doing it that well.

And then George Floyd died in police custody on May 25, 2020. This absolutely should not have happened. Is it fair to say he was killed? I know it’s innocent until proven guilty, but we saw it with our own eyes. It was horrifying. I understand Floyd had some underlying health conditions, but isn’t it likely he would be alive today had that former police officer not knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, with three other police officers watching and bystanders asking, pleading, for him to stop?

Most people were disturbed by this. Many people were upset deeply by this, particularly members of the African-American community. Can you blame them? We had a conversation on one of our Wednesday night Zoom meetings with a Black pastor who was pretty outspoken about his feelings.

The death of George Floyd (as well as Breonna Taylor and others) was awful, but maybe there was some good that could come out of it. It looked like we could have a discussion about police procedures. (A friend of mine in law enforcement discovered that kneeling on someone’s neck is an actual police procedure in Minneapolis. It’s not here in Portland.) It looked like we could talk about police unions and removing the few bad police officers so that the vast majority of good ones could be trusted to do their jobs. It looked like we could have a discussion about racism in this country. It is, after all, America’s original sin.

I was certainly ready to go there.

But then something strange happened. The coronavirus was still a problem and family members could not be in the room with relatives as they died from the coronavirus, but large gatherings of protesters were allowed.

We decided—I use “we” because I really do believe we are all in this together—that the police were a greater health threat than the coronavirus.

And then protests turned into destruction and looting and rioting. We even, for a while, had an anarchist zone in Seattle. Reforming the police turned into defunding the police.

And here is where things get really difficult, because we don’t all see eye to eye on what has happened and what should happen, even in our little community. Some of us are overwhelmed by profound loss. Others see opportunities that need to be seized.

I see some good right now. These are personal reflections, but see if they ring true for you. Let me share three right now:

1. I believe this year is exposing some idolatry in our hearts. What do I mean? It’s just possible that for some of us love of country is more important than God right now. That, by definition, is idolatry. It’s one thing to be concerned about things you see and make them a matter of prayer. It’s another thing to be unsettled by the things you see and feeling as though all is lost because your vision of what America is and should be has become a kind of god to you. If God is the most important person in my life I won’t be troubled by anything else.

2. I believe this year is reminding us of sin and its effects. This is a fallen world—a good world gone wrong. A fallen world has disease and being a Christian does not always provide immunity from it. There are a number in our community struggling with bodies that aren’t working well right now. Broken bones. Heart trouble. The prospect of surgery. We have a friend who, recently, in the midst of all of these large-scale events this year, lost both parents in a ten-day period. If sin and death were the end of the story, it would be an unlivable tragedy we could never recover from. But we are promised both an abundant life in this world and eternal life in the one to come. That gives us hope. In the center of human sin and suffering is Jesus on the cross. Dying for our sin. Experiencing our suffering. Sin is not the whole story. It’s certainly not the end of the story.

3. I believe this year is reminding us of the importance of individuals. Presidents and governors are important. We need leaders who will lead us well. Can we agree that good leaders can make things better and bad leaders can make things worse? But the power and beauty of this country is not found in our leaders. It’s found in its citizens. The Constitution opens with “We the people …” The same is true of the church. The pastor and elders matter. They can make things better or worse. But nothing matters more than the individuals in the church. It’s what individuals do day in and day out that matters. I am so proud of this community that we get to be part of. I ran into town yesterday afternoon and there was a 94-year-old member of our community out with the weed-eater, keeping her lawn tidy. You’re doing what you know to do. And you’re making things better. I should say something about the importance of families, but I’m running late and long. I know there’s one family at the coast right now. There’s another one headed there this weekend. There’s another family that is camping. Another one went kayaking the other day when dad had a day off. These are triumphs. They won’t get reported on the news, but they matter so much right now.