For those of you who made it to worship at Our Savior yesterday, if you took anything more from the sermon than the Gospel of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, I hope it’s that you noticed I didn’t use the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” once in the whole sermon.
That was deliberate.
Like me, I’m sure many of you are exhausted by those words. Almost every radio commercial includes them. Nearly every news report is in some way related to them. So many in-person and online conversations I have are about them. They dwell at the center of many conflicts among far too many of us. Also, if you tune into sermons around the world, you’ll discover a lot of preachers crafting their sermons to include them whether or not they actually fit into the theme at hand.
There’s a rock song that holds the line, “I hate the sound of my own voice.” It’s eerily resonant right now. I’ve gotten to the point of despising the sound of my own voice when I say “COVID-19” or “coronavirus.”
Still, I try to stay abreast of the data, and so part of the struggle for me is due to the hydra-like nature of information and the ever-shifting landscape of the “data” feeding it. (I put the word data in quotation marks for a reason.)
I read a news article from CBS (WWMT in west Michigan) about how hospitalizations in Michigan have dropped 65% in the last month. There was a point of connection to another article reminding the reader that this number doesn’t even factor in that 99% of all COVID-19 related deaths were most likely due to other illnesses. This was good news. But then no sooner had I finished the article, did I read a more fearful article from Fox News sharing Dr. Fauci’s concern that a second wave could hit in the fall. I then landed on another piece from CNN inferring that millions more in America will become infected and die unless mask-wearing becomes the new normal in our society. These two articles were bad news—very bad news.
I refer to all of this as “hydra-like” because, as with the mythical creature, when one fearful head is cut off with the flaming sword of data, plenty of folks are waiting in the wings with opposing data to grow more heads in its place. With every news story saying one thing, plenty more are armed and ready for saying the exact opposite. Unfortunately, these “my-data-is-better-than-your-data” scuffles happening among us regular folks are also happening at the top levels of government. For example, I’m reminded of a brief conversation I had last week with Georgine Shelton at the church.
Regardless of what I believe is happening, I shared with her that the Mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, had just finished a press conference in which he gleefully reported that what’s being done across the state to stop the spread of the virus is definitely working. To prove this, one of the details he shared was that the number of cases in Detroit (a major hotspot in the nation) was in a steady curve downward, shrinking daily by half. Again, he was elated by this, and really rather hopeful. Essentially, the data he offered lopped off one of fear’s heads.
But then our Governor, Gretchen Whitmer (someone working closely with Duggan and mining from the same data sources) held a press conference in which she said, essentially, while we’re doing a lot to curb the spread of the virus, data shows we’re not doing enough, and because of this, the extension of her various lock down orders would be the safest way forward for all in Michigan. The next couple of news stories that crossed my feed were grim tales of death and destruction, several in particular aimed at a 77-year-old barber in Owosso, Karl Manke, portraying him as dangerously defiant for reopening his shop in the midst of the lock down. Besides the fact that he felt he had to reopen in order to survive, the stories recounted him being ticketed twice, having his license revoked, and subsequently shamed by the Attorney General as an “imminent threat” to his community.
One of fear’s heads was lopped off. “Don’t worry. What we’re doing is working.” Within moments, two of fear’s heads grew back. “Be worried. What we’re doing is not enough. And watch out, because cold-blooded folks like Karl Manke could be anywhere!”
I suppose going a little further into all of this, I can’t help but sense two particular undercurrents tugging at the rest of us. Both require honesty to grasp.
The first is that for many, it seems data isn’t really data anymore, at least not in an objective sense. People are inclined to believe a certain way, and so data-mining has become little more than a point on the timeline where people stopped digging any deeper because they already found what their belief system required. For me, that teeters at the edge of fanaticism, and quite honestly, I wrestle with it in discussions with itinerant folks wielding what they refer to as “unarguable facts.” So far, it would seem every fact is frustratingly arguable. That’s part of the problem. Who’s telling the truth?
Streaming directly from this, a second undercurrent takes hold. It steers toward the realization that one too many humans on both sides of the mess are indeed functioning as fanatics and are showing themselves to be just as Winston Churchill so brilliantly described—people incapable of changing their minds or the subject.
Around and around we go talking about the same stuff, this fact canceling out that fact, and that datum voiding this detail, all the while doubling down on our trolling efforts and having completely lost sight of where we were trying to go in the first place.
For Christians, it’s in moments like these that Psalm 119:105 beams a little more brightly.
“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
Much of what we’re hearing these days does little more than stir “Pontius Pilate,” “What is truth?” type confusion (John 18:38). And yet, by the Word of God, Christians have a point of origin for discerning truth from falsehood, fact from opinion, right from wrong. As we tread along darkened paths, the lamplight of God’s holy Word brings clarity. We can know by the Word of God that fear is unwarranted in any situation. Jesus—the Way, the Truth, and the Life—is standing right in front of us. He’s with us and leading us. He’s giving us the forgiveness we need for our failings, and by that same Gospel, He’s equipping us with courage for living in this world. On top of that, He’s giving us a dexterity of heart for measuring the words and deeds aimed at us (and the thoughts, words, and deeds we might want to aim at others) against the truth of God’s Word.
In other words, a Christian has what is necessary for discerning truth and acting according to it in this fog-laden landscape of opinion editorials.
Of course if you’re starved of that Word, it won’t be so easy, and I dare say it’ll be noticeable in the substance of your opinions. The further you are from the Word—the less you are immersed in it, the more you avoid time with it—the thicker the fog will become, and the harder it will be to navigate, let alone offer anything of value to the conversation.
By the way, I’m not suggesting the Bible is just a book (like so many others) filled with great advice and worth learning, or that being immersed in the Word means having texts from scripture written on paper or cards or whatever and scattered around the house serving as talismans to fan away spiritual plumes. (Believe it or not, I know people who think that if they just keep their unread Bible on the nightstand, they’ll be protected while sleeping at night. That’s an unfortunate misunderstanding.)
When I say these things regarding the Word, I mean what Saint John means in John 1:1-14 and 1 John 5:6-12. I mean what Saint Augustine meant when he wrote of the verbal and visible means of the Word of God—Word and Sacrament—the Word read, preached, given in Absolution, poured out in Holy Baptism, and fed into us by way of the Lord’s Supper. To be apart from the Word is to be apart from Christ, the Word made flesh. It is to be distant from Him, and to be disconnected from the supply chain of His faith-sustaining gifts. And take note, this avenue of distribution isn’t as opaquely intangible as one might think. God works in real, concrete, face-to-face, in-person ways. He has established His church for functioning in, with, and under these ways (Hebrews 10:23-31). You don’t want to be starved of this. The Sin-nature is strong, and like every human being before you who has ever deliberately neglected the Word in this way, having fitted this or that excuse into seemingly reasonable contexts calling for separation, basic human history proves you’ll be in jeopardy of losing sight of the forgiveness Jesus won and delivered to you by His life, death, and resurrection. And if this occurs, the resultant life that flows from such faith—which includes the ability to live as God’s child in this world, discerning good from evil, right from wrong, and being a reliable source of truth in the midst of falsehood—all of this will become a jumbled, uninterpretable mess of uncertainty.
Remember this, especially during these times. It is eternally important.