These are strange, unsettling times.
Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). We’re to love one another, as he has loved us (John 13:34-35).
On a Sunday morning, with sunlight streaming through colored glass windows and choral Alleluias lifting skyward, this calling seems to throb in the heart. We see one another, and we pass the peace of Christ. Christian fellowship extends beyond songs and hellos. It’s corporate, palpable. It’s alive. Love for Christ isn’t an unwatered seed nestled in the heart, quiet in its repose, but rather a call to action. We reach out, and grasp the hand. We embrace after a week apart. After a death. After a baby. Out of love, because he loved us first.
We bring meals, and offer our time. We feed the hungry, clothe the poor, offer rest for the weary. We steward God’s creation for the good of his people. We aim to act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Mic. 6:8), in gratitude for his justice and mercy toward us. We nurture the downtrodden and afflicted, whatever their background, creed, or story, because we were all dead in our sins, but God, because of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive together in Christ (Eph. 2:4).
And then, suddenly, laying on hands is no longer loving. Suddenly, the warmth of a hug, the assurance of a handhold stir up unease. Table fellowship threatens harm. Passing the peace can only happen at a 6-foot distance, beyond the reach of plummeting droplets.
Worse yet, those most vulnerable among us are those most susceptible to our impulses for closeness.
COVID-19’s predation of the elderly and ill is sinister. Those whom life has already crippled, and who rely upon others to get through the mundane stuff of the day, are those at greatest risk of dying. My kids will most likely pass through this coronavirus scare bored, but unscathed. My husband and I might lay low for two weeks with a fever. But our friends who’ve stored up the most wisdom and years, who survived the fear of wars, who provided for families when money dwindled and food was scarce, who have the richest stories to tell, and who now, as the toils of life wear down their bodies, need us to love on them, are the most likely to succumb to this swiftly moving disease.
And we can’t uphold them.
To love on those most vulnerable during this outbreak, we need to oppose our strongest instincts, and keep our distance. Our physical presence threatens more than helps. When we lay on hands, and pass the peace, and lift a friend from a chair, we bestow more danger than love, more disregard than compassion.
It all seems so backward, so perverse. Which it is, because this whole COVID-19 disaster is a manifestation of sin at its most loathsome.
The death counts tallying on maps are its face. The paranoia and cleared shelves, its signature. With every positive test, every declaration of community transmission, its twisted limbs creep further, fouling everything in their wake, choking away the hopes of every community on the globe.
And yet, we do have hope. Our hope endures. Our hope lives:
“According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Pet. 3-5)
COVID-19 and its brethren are the very reason the Gospel is good news. Sin is deplorable. It destroys every good thing. It tears apart what goodness would bring close. It decimates what love would heal.
But it does not have the final say.
COVID-19 will not win, because Jesus has already overcome this blackness. He has triumphed over sin. Through his sacrifice and resurrection, death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54). We suffer now, but “this light and momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Cor. 4:17)
While COVID-19 scares us, it can not touch our hope. While it cuts us off from those we’d seek to love, it cannot wrench us, or anyone who knows Christ, from God’s love:
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, 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.” (Rom. 8:38-39)
With all its requirements for social distancing, the coronavirus threatens to distance us from the loving fellowship that gives us life and air during hard moments. But what matters more than handholding, and hugs, and even physical presence, is our living hope, the good news of our salvation in Christ, who sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
And while we can’t shake hands with the elderly and ill among us, we can still pass the peace of Christ, through reminding them of this living hope.
The blank glow of a screen falls so far short compared with the warmth of palm to palm. The tinny projection of a voice over the phone, seems so meager compared to eye contact, presence across the table, and a seat by the bedside. But in this time when everything has flipped upside down, the gift of technology is enough. Gadgetry doesn’t replace in-person fellowship. It can’t supplant presence. But it keeps us connected with those most vulnerable.
It permits us to remind our brothers and sisters of their living hope when life otherwise seems bleak.
It connects them with a loving voice to speak the truth in love into their lives, to remind them, when loneliness sinks in, that Christ promises to be with them always (Matt. 28:20).
As we quarantine within our homes, and our streets empty themselves, we can still love our neighbors as Christ beseeches. We can remember the nonagenarian singing in the choir for her seventh decade. We can recall the widow who struggles to hear, the friend with HIV who can’t see well enough to drive. We can stay connected with them in the coming, lonely weeks, and even if we can’t embrace, perhaps we can pick up medications or groceries. Perhaps we can help make phone calls to doctors or family members. Most importantly, perhaps we can listen: to their needs and fears, their thoughts and concerns.
Through the listening, and through the sharing, we can assure them they are loved by God.
Through the listening, and the sharing, we can remind them of their living hope to an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.
(For further thoughts, please see my recent article at TGC: Neighbor Love in the Era of COVID-19)