Drew Faust in the epilogue of her book, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and The American Civil War,” wrote: “Individuals found themselves in a new and different moral universe, one in which unimaginable destruction had become a daily experience. Where did God belong in such a world? How could a benevolent deity countenance such cruelty and such suffering?” Faust notes, “Civil War Americans lived the rest of their lives with grief and loss.” The scale of suffering was such that no one was left untouched nor unchanged. I wonder if the same will be said of those of us living in this time of COVID-19.
My brother, who works in a Boston emergency room, sent me a text: “Boston Globe had 20 pages of obituaries. Scary.” Makeshift morgues dot city landscapes. Cremations are backlogged. Unclaimed bodies in New York are buried in mass graves. The unimaginable has become a daily experience. People are dying without family by their sides, last words having been spoken through a screen. “The Daily,” a podcast produced by The New York Times, interviewed an ICU nurse in New Orleans who said: “I think I’m haunted by patients dying alone. I think we know, as healthcare workers, too much that patients are dying alone. And so I’m trying to advocate for them to make sure you call who you need to call and maybe FaceTime with somebody, because we can’t let visitors in. And even if they end up on a vent, we still can’t have the visitors come in and say goodbye.” She went on to say: “I mean, I’ve seen a lot of patients pass in my life. But this is this weird unknown. And I think it’s because it’s such a lonely, lonely virus. And people are dying by themselves.”
This lonely, lonely virus prevents communal mourning and denies us many of the rituals of grief. We cannot bring food and eat together. We cannot hug our bereaved friends. We cannot provide a ministry of physical presence to the sick, the dying, the isolated or the brokenhearted. As we lament the tens of thousands of deaths from this virus, we also wrestle with record unemployment claims, struggle with how to provide education to children now unable to attend school and live with the stress of uncertainty about when it will be safe to return to heretofore normal routines. How will we address the many realities made undeniable in this crisis? Where does God belong in such a world? Where does, and will, the church belong in such a world? Will we live the rest of our lives with grief and loss?
In “What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith,” Thomas Long writes, “Preachers do not have the luxury of dismissing in the pulpit a serious question that arises from the pews.” This season of suffering, crisis, trauma and grief makes for serious questions from the pews and from the public. How will they be addressed from our pulpits? Answered through policy? Responded to in practice? How will we comfort those who mourn, encourage the weak and strengthen the fainthearted?
If we in the church dismiss the urgent questions this pandemic calls forth, we will have failed to be the Body of Christ in the world. William Placher, in “Narratives of a Vulnerable God,” writes: “In communion with Jesus Christ, Christians can find healing of life’s fragmentation, such that their lives become more nearly meaningful wholes. In communion with Jesus Christ, Christians can begin to live their lives with, from and toward God, such that life’s fleetingness is no longer a burden or a terror.”
As the death toll mounts and the lines at food banks lengthen and the scale of suffering around the globe grows, the burden and terror of life feels inescapable. We find ourselves in a new moral universe, one that feels very scary, but one that is nonetheless redeemed by Jesus Christ. Our call as Christians is to be in such close communion with Jesus Christ that we can help it heal. In the wake of this lonely, lonely virus, we bear witness to the truth that God refuses to leave us alone and therefore we will not abandon one another.
Grace and peace,