As a pastor responsible for a congregation of believers, it’s been a tough week. There are hard decisions to be made and challenges to serving those who are most in need.
It has been shared widely, but these words from C. S. Lewis have been a wise reminder of how Christians live not just in these complex days, but every day. Lewis was writing about a spreading fear from nuclear proliferation, but you need only replace his context with our own pandemic to recognize his broader point.
C. S. Lewis writes:
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds. — “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays
A Word from the Psalms:
Also, as many pastors have, I’ve been turning to the psalms this week. Much attention is being given to Psalm 91.
1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say[a] to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
4 He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
8 You will only look with your eyes
and see the recompense of the wicked.
9 Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge[b]—
10 no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.
14 “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name.
15 When he calls to me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and honor him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”
What’s so interesting about that psalm is the way it was distorted by Satan during Jesus’s temptation. In his second attempt, Satan encouraged Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple and allow the angels to rescue him, a display of power and importance that was sure to catch the attention of the world.
Satan quoted from verse 12 of Psalm 91: “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”
Too many people read Psalm 91 in the same way that Satan distorted it—reading it as a promise that nothing bad will come upon those who follow God. Given our current situation, we too can clutch verse ten’s promise that disease will not touch us.
But what are Christians to think when they do become sick or when sickness does invade their bodies and congregations? Jesus understood something more profound about this psalm’s intention.
Like the psalms so often do, they lead us by our most honest prayers and desperations to the higher truths of God. That truth comes through clearest in verse 15. “When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble.” God’s promise is not that trouble will never come. His promise is that He will be with us in the midst of it. The promise is His presence. Or, as the final verse reminds us, God will show us His salvation.
I’m reminded of Christ’s beatitudes. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who are persecuted. For they shall see God. They shall be comforted. They shall be satisfied.
This satisfaction and vision and comfort come in the midst of suffering and poverty and hunger.
Dionysius and Joy
What Christians have is not a secret antidote against pain or death. Faith hasn’t yet reworked the believer’s genetics. We are as susceptible to sickness as any of our neighbors. But we do possess an inoculation against fear, anxiety, and dread, though too often we forget we have received it. For it is often in these places of sickness and suffering that God’s presence is most powerfully known. Our sickness is transformed into something strangely different.
We are capable of every effort to protect our communities and comply with all their recommendations and to do it without fear. For the spread of hopelessness and the distrust of God are a far greater risk than any virus. It is this sickness and this trouble which the psalm promises to rescue us from. The sting of death as scripture refers to it and the hope of a new and whole creation.
In 252 AD, the ancient city of Alexandria faced a massive plague. Christians, like Dionysius, were at the center of both its costs and Christian responses of support. Writing about their situation in an Easter letter to his churches, Dionysius explained, “other people would not think this a time for festival [but] far from being a time of distress, it is a time of unimaginable joy.”
Dionysius was surely thinking of James’s words: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
God, make us steadfast people who see every moment of struggle as another moment to taste more deeply of your salvation and to sense more tangibly your presence. Pour your Spirit out upon your church even as we are separated from one another. And fill us with joy, not that we might escape this suffering, but that it might be transformed into hope, faith, and steadfastness of service.