Commentary on an Epidemic

I heard a casual remark the other day that started me thinking about our cultural atmosphere, both right now and before the quarantine measures began.  Three months ago we were still in the throes of the vicious political rhetoric that has despoiled public discourse as well as family mealtimes and friendships.  Now that we are more than two months into the epidemic, nasty rhetoric is increasing again, making an uninvited comeback after a few weeks of hoping we could work together well to fight this thing.

            The remark I heard was that right now, we have to treat each other’s breath as though it is poison. 

            Wow.  It’s a startling but realistic way of looking at it.  That is what distancing, masks, and canceled gatherings are all about.  We cannot get close enough to breath each other’s exhalations.  The droplets contained therein could sicken or even kill us.

            But I wonder, what were we doing to each other before the corona virus invaded our world?  We were at times spewing poison, doing real damage to our relationships.  It could be argued that our accusations and character assassinations were as damaging as the virus we are fighting now.  We let our anxiety drive us to say terrible things to each other. 

            You might think I am minimizing the current crisis with this comparison.  I am not.  I have lost a family member to COVID-19.  But I daresay even my late brother would agree that the harsh statements coming through our mouths and our computers can be literally as damaging as any physical disease we can suffer.  Hate is the root of violence, both physical and psychological.  It has been spreading like an epidemic these past few years, and we have all felt its sickening effects. 

            The irony is that, while we have to struggle mightily to fight the corona virus, we have much more control over what we say.  We can choose whether to take the easy, low road of blame and distrust, where we jump to conclusions about each other and quote those who agree with our opinions.  Or we can choose the high road of restraint and compassion, where we seek understanding and common ground.  It is hard to take the high road.  Here is the good news: God gives us the power to do hard things.  We will celebrate Pentecost this weekend, when the followers of Jesus were given the Holy Spirit to empower them for telling everyone everywhere about the love of Jesus. 

            There was an earlier kind of “Pentecost” that happened on the very same day as Jesus’ resurrection.  He appeared to his followers in a locked room, saying, “Peace be with you.”  He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Jn 20:21-23)  It’s interesting that the power of the Holy Spirit was granted to them, and then forgiveness—the real heavy lifting of relationships—was the first task given to them.         

            Our speech involves not only our breath, but our will (choosing the high ground) and our tongues.  James writes, “The tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5b)  He expands on this, and I like Eugene Peterson’s version in The Message: “It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.” (James 3:5-6)

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

            James also says, “Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.” (James 3:17-18, The Message)

            We can’t do this very well.  But God can, and God offers us the power and the love we need in order to make the choice and live it every day.  They are ours for the asking!  May you know the love and power of God in your life today and every day, during the epidemic and beyond. 

Spiritual Practice: Being Present

Reality.  It is a stinker right now.  We would rather not have to endure this overwhelming stoppage and restriction that has us anxious and impatient, irritable and sad. 

But now is all we have.  It is all we ever have, if you think about it.  Yesterday is gone.  Tomorrow exists only in our imaginations.  But “living in the now” seems like a silly statement.  Isn’t that what we are always doing?

Not if we are stuck in our memories.  Not if we stake our happiness on expectations for the future. 

There are gifts in the present moment.  I realize the present may be excruciating for you if you are dealing with loss or suffering in other ways.  Yet many who have endured suffering have been able to look back and see the gifts that were there: the love of family or a friend, the gracious help of caregivers, an unexpected moment of humor, the wisdom accrued in solitude and even austerity.

We don’t have to wait for the wisdom of hindsight to seek and find the gifts of the present moment.  Perhaps these days are a setting for you to recognize gifts you have previously overlooked: a healthy heart beating in your chest, the view out of your window, the rich taste of coffee, the pleasure of using a cherished memento.  Even a lack of beloved connections can be a gift to make you more aware of God’s presence that you didn’t take time to notice before. 

Here is a poem I wrote in one such moment.  If you would like to read a longer poem on the subject, you can check out this one about the glory of the present.  (Instructions on the spiritual practice appear at the end of this post.)

July Morning

I look out at the non-air-conditioned

unvacuumed, untidied backyard

and see life teeming

every leaf unfurled from a bud two months ago

goldfinches hatched from eggs.

My cat sleeps on his tail-cushion.

He was a kitten once

and I was an embryo before that.

The rug under my feet came from seeds

fibers woven by some hands

that once rested on mothers’ breasts.

Native life

and processed life

but all life

silently pulsing with

the casual wisdom of having been created

being here


for this.

So.  How to “be present?”  Here is one way.

Take a few deep, slow breaths.  Notice the abundance in your lungs filling up and the release of tension as you exhale.  Take your time.

Repeat to yourself slowly, as often as it feels right: “Now.  Here.  This.” 

If you notice something in your surroundings, give it your undivided attention for a few moments.

Let the peace of the moment settle into you as you gently move into the next part of your day.

Spiritual Practice: (Forced) Fasting

Fasting is an ancient practice that invites us to abstinence for the sake of spiritual focus.  I am no expert; you can find information and guidance in books devoted to this practice alone or to a range of spiritual disciplines.  My first experience with fasting happened in college when I decided to fast from lunches on Mondays during Lent and to give the money saved to a charity to alleviate hunger.  Occasional fasts since then have taken my mind off myself, my growling stomach reminding me of people who have too few choices about their nourishment and health. 

We usually think of fasting as abstinence from food, but abstinence can apply to anything:  social media, spending, personal vices or attitudes, and so on.  The reasons for fasting also vary.  In general, the practice shifts your focus and teaches you about your appetites and habits.  Communal fasting can help you to act and pray with intention along with others, focusing your efforts to learn together and perhaps act in harmony to achieve shared goals.  Individual fasting can deepen your prayer life, heighten your awareness, and help you live your baptism with greater intention.

Right now we are experiencing what might be called a “forced” fast.  We are abstaining from personal contact and community.  We are doing without some luxuries.  If this describes you, it may be a good time to accept the conditions and see what you can learn about yourself.  If you stop resisting the discomfort and open yourself to God’s presence in the midst of it, you may find that you will actually change your relationship with food, Facebook, money, activity,  etc. moving forward.

For too many, this is not simply a fast but a major disruption leading to empty shelves and unpaid bills.  Choosing abstinence is one thing; unexpected loss is another.  If this describes you, I can only hope that those of us who are not as devastated by these conditions will fast in some form in solidarity with you, and will open our hands in generosity for your sake.  I urge you to contact your pastor if you are struggling, so that your fellow church members may have the opportunity to help.  This could be done with anonymous donors and receivers.  “God provides” often means God’s people are mobilized to help.

May all of us emerge from this fast—forced or otherwise—with a keener sense of trust in God and love in community together.