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)
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.