Our church council cancelled all events at our church this weekend. While agreeing with the decision, I'm not comfortable about it. Quitting, surrender, resignation, abandoning, giving up: they are all four-letter words to me.
The last Sunday I failed to appear in front of my congregation because I was sick was in 1978. During that span of 42 years I've had dozens of influenza bugs and digestive tract ailments. In that time, I've also had an appendix removed, prostate cancer, six hand surgeries, pneumonia (twice), and hospitalizations for both lung infections and heart irregularities. But I was always back in front of my congregation by the very next Sunday. On a few occasions, someone else would deliver the sermon. But I usually preached the sermon, and was always there to give the greeting, announcements, and benediction.
And I've only once ever cancelled worship because of weather. It was my country church back in 1978 in rural West Virginia. The 20 minute drive on mountain roads was impassible that Sunday.
In short, I am a man of inflexible piety and stubborn pride. Insufferable, even for those who love me most.
The prayer of confession includes lines such as these: "...we have done things we ought not to have done...we have relied too much on the devices and desires of our own hearts..."
I ought NOT to have been at church some of those Sundays. Even though I refrained from shaking hands...and kept my distance from people when I was contagious, I still shouldn't have let my pride (and my fear of criticism) govern my generally prudent way of deciding things. My bragging all these years about "never taking a Sunday off sick" is simply a device of my own desiring, not something that actually pleased my heavenly father. In every instance, the people in attendance those days would have heard a much better sermon that Sunday if I had stayed home and let someone else preach.
I always thought that those Hillbilly Christians who handled rattlesnakes in church (to prove their piety) were just plain stupid. But all I have to do is look in the mirror and see that they don't have a corner on stupid. What was I trying to prove all those years?
Our council decided to cancel all this weekend's events because 1) our local hospital announced that we have our first positive case of the coronavirus and 2) a staff member suddenly came down with a bad and undefined respiratory ailment. About 80% of our congregation is over 60, a few are children with vulnerable immune systems. These are people who are being urged by the Trump administration to stay out of crowds: period. But my congregation is made up of people who, if you tell them NOT to do something, it is the surest way to get them to do it. So we knew that we couldn't just tell people to stay home. The only way to keep them safe was to lock them out. (even though most of them have keys to get in anyway!)
The decision made me nervous for another reason. Our national response to this threat has turned into a political rat-fight. A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken ten days ago indicated that Democrats are more likely to take precautions against the coronavirus than Republicans. And Republicans are more likely to be irritated at changes and closures. Of course, my congregation is heavily Republican. So, I knew that if we cancelled plans this weekend, I was in for some abuse, even if it was the council that made the decision and not me alone.
But I'll stick my neck out and say that the council made a good decision. All of us are trying to make decisions with a decided lack of information. And in such time, we have to use our best judgment about what is probable, what is plausible, and what is possible.
The probables: the past math on this virus will probably continue. It takes a high number of days before symptoms appear, it is highly contagious, it affects the population with exponential acceleration, it has a fatality rate many times that of other viruses out there, and countries that didn't get ahead of it found their healthcare systems overrun.
The plausibles: It is plausible that it will infect less than half the population. It is plausible that precautions will delay and lower the peak, allowing healthcare providers to handle the demand.
The possibles: It is possible that an asteroid will hit the earth and wipe us all out before the virus does. It is possible that this is all a news media hoax. It is possible that Russia started all this to wipe out China and the U.S. Possible does not mean plausible.
With all our uncertainty, we try to avoid both fear and stupidity. We have to cope with anxiety as well as emerging scientific facts. Different people are anxious about different things. For example, in the past twenty years, there have been 18 church shooting incidents in the U.S. involving fatalities. That comes to less than one per year per over 330,000 churches in the country. But it has created enough anxiety for us to lock our doors (even on Sunday mornings), install camera systems, approve parishioners who carry concealed weapons, and call meetings to discuss how to handle an active shooter.
Different tragedies affect different people different ways emotionally. We try to be understanding about these things. People anxious about active shooters should refrain from criticizing people anxious about a deadly virus... and visa versa.
As the body of Christ, we church folk are interested in everyone's safety and health. We will not give in to fear, nor let our anxieties dictate our decisions. But we will also go the extra mile to protect our people... if not from everything possible, then from what is probable. Stay healthy. And try a little harder to be patient with each other during these trying days.