Strange Days . . .

These are strange days indeed.

When have the citizens of any nation ever believed it to be the responsibility of their government to prevent them from contracting an airborne virus? Somewhere along the way a paradigm shift took place in America, and we’re seeing the fruit of that shift today.

Communicable diseases and bacterial infections, along with the deaths they cause, comprised a familiar feature of American life not so long ago. Typhus, typhoid, smallpox, malaria, yellow fever, tuberculosis, polio, and cholera exacted their cost yearly, and generations of Americans lived and labored under the pall of disease. Death never stood far from our forbearers, and the risk of contracting a life-threatening illness loomed over everyday social interactions.

Basic sanitation, clean water, and the emergence of vaccines and antibiotics radically reduced or eliminated many common diseases of generations past, and our life expectancy has blossomed as a result, stretching from 36 years in 1800 to 47 in 1900 to 75 in 2000 to 78 today.

Whereas improved hygiene, sanitation, and waste management helped to eradicate diseases like typhus, typhoid, and cholera, and while mosquito control helped to end seasonal malaria and yellow fever epidemics, the widespread availability of penicillin beginning in 1945 and the polio vaccine in 1955 helped to usher in an era in which death from disease and infection rapidly waned. Vaccines multiplied, medicine advanced, and America forgot.

The last yellow fever outbreak in the United States occurred in 1905. Malaria is unheard of. Cholera is a third world disease. Only the WWII generation remembers suffering through scarlet fever, mumps, measles, and rubella, while only the eldest of the Baby Boomers can recall a childhood with polio. Smallpox has been eradicated worldwide for over forty years, and virtually no American child for twenty years has endured the itchy misery of chicken pox.

Americans now expect to live largely disease free. That expectation is barely seventy years old, but it saturates the air we breathe, and we have become an entitled people—entitled to health, entitled to freedom from disease, entitled to a long life, so much so that we now expect Uncle Sam to prevent us from contracting an airborne cold virus.

COVID-19 has exposed this paradigm shift.

The rise of AIDS in the early 1980s threatened our entitlement, but pharmaceutical salvation came quickly and our superiority over disease resumed. But then came SARS, MERS, Zika, and the reemergence of measles and pertussis. Antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are multiplying, as are deaths from hospital infections. And now, COVID-19 has paralyzed the globe. Our mastery over nature seems less complete than it did even a decade ago.

The future will not get easier.

As strong as American entitlement to personal health has become, something older, stronger, and deeper undergirds American culture—individualism. Fierce, independent, vigorous individualism, bursting forth in every manner of self-expression and personal freedom, runs in American blood. But for generations, the ethic of Christianity tempered and shaped the average American’s use of the individual freedom he or she enjoyed, imbuing individualism with altruism, self-sacrifice, morality, and self-control. But the wane of Christianity in America has largely coincided with the rise of health-entitlement. As a result, the individualism that thrives in American culture today runs free from all fetters, having abandoned the moral and ethical constraints of prior generations. As the 21st century progresses, as new diseases emerge while old diseases reappear, as the global community becomes more global, and as individual actions increasingly affect community wellbeing, American entitlement to health and American individualism will increasingly collide, compete for dominance, and spark deep social divisions.

Already those who privilege freedom and those who privilege health stand at loggerheads. Some parents demand the personal freedom not to vaccinate their children. Others demand the vaccination of all children in the name of public health. Some students assert their right to enjoy spring break during the midst of a pandemic. Others demand that those same students forego spring break for the sake of public health.

American culture offers no solution to this impasse. But Christ does.

Jesus teaches personal freedom tempered by a deep personal responsibility to love and protect our neighbors. Jesus supports public efforts to eliminate diseases and the suffering they inflict on our fellow man, but he also teaches that the man who escapes disease today will nevertheless stand before his Creator tomorrow, for death will find us all. Jesus offers eternal health in the face of temporary health that is sure to wane. Jesus promises eternal freedom—not freedom to sin, but freedom from sin—the freedom of the sons of God, full of the responsibility to glorify God.

Ultimately, freedom and safety only coexist in Jesus Christ, and if America wants both it must first have him.

“Distancing” Double-Talk

Some double-talk is too hypocritical not to mention.

St. Patrick’s Day revelers. College spring breakers. Any person in any public group of any size. What do they have in common? All have been shamed and excoriated on social media for refusing to comply with “social distancing” guidelines.

One young man lashed out via Facebook at a photo of college students on a Florida beach, writing that these were “the worst kind of humans,” while another agreed, saying to the students in the photo, “You’re killing people!”

“Idiots,” “dumbsh*ts,” and “*ssholes” are just of few of the more vulgar insults I’ve read recently as people virtue signal their support for “distancing.” The less-than-delightful meme, “Stay the F*ck Home!” has also been making its rounds.

The implication seems clear: Socially responsible human beings do not brazenly risk other’s lives.

But at least in my social media sphere some of the most vocal shamers of those who violate “distancing” rules are at the same time vocal supporters of abortion. Evidently, Joe McIrish is directly responsible for making sure that no grandmother gets COVID-19, but an abortion advocate is not responsible to protect the unborn. Mary from State U is supposed to set aside her freedoms for the safety of others, but the abortion advocate won’t set aside hers for her own baby. What happened to socially responsible human beings not brazenly risking others lives?

After all, abortion does not simply risk life. It destroys it.

Personally, I’m happy to participate in “social distancing.” I believe that love for neighbor compels me to seek the welfare of others, even if that means setting aside some of my “rights” for a time.

But if you’re in favor of slaughtering 2,500 babies each day, every day, which is the butcher’s bill of abortion in America, then please don’t lecture anyone on hand washing, “social-distancing,” or the need to protect the vulnerable.

Because you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth.

A Guaranteed Inheritance

Some things cannot be taken away.

In the last two weeks, each of us has learned that a pandemic can take away many more things than we’d prefer to give. It can take away your favorite restaurant. It can take away your gym. It can take away your school. It can take away airline flights, vacation plans, wedding ceremonies, and an eager 12-year-old’s epic Nerf gun backyard Rambo birthday party. It can take away March Madness, the NHL, and the Master’s. It can take away your job, your paycheck, and your economic security. It can take your friend, your neighbor, your grandmother.

But it cannot take your inheritance.

Even as Paul teaches in Galatians 4:4-7, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

Did you catch that? You who trust in Christ possess, and are possessed by, his Holy Spirit, for you are adopted sons and daughters of God, and if sons and daughters then heirs of your Father’s estate. And what does your Father possess? All things. What will you inherit? All things. A renewed and perfected Creation awaits you, a land flowing with milk and honey, in which neither disease nor age nor injury nor death stalk the living. This inheritance is guaranteed to your faith, for by his death Christ has purchased it for you. It is bought and paid for. No pandemic can take it from you. It is secure, for he who holds it for you is God Almighty.

Not even death can take this inheritance. So hold your head high, Christian, and be not afraid. To live is Christ. Yes, and to die surely is gain.

For some things cannot be taken away.

Boot Camp, COVID-19, and Busyness

I am often way too busy, and so are you.

COVID-19 has interrupted the busyness, imposing upon most of us some form of “social distancing,” isolation, or even full quarantine. None of us is happy about it, save for the most ardent introverts. But an empty schedule and a slower pace of life offer blessings, especially for Christians.

For three years I served as a chaplain aboard Parris Island, SC where Marine Corps boot camp takes place. Recruits face a radical life change when they arrive on the island. No cell phone. No laptop. No iPad. No television, Netflix, or Amazon Prime. No communication with the outside world, except for snail mail. And no talk with other recruits. At all. For weeks.

Young men and women whose lives toggled from one entertainment to the next, and who had never before known a day without digital technology at their fingertips, suddenly find themselves alone with their thoughts and feelings for the first time. Rather than simply turning to the next entertainment to alleviate painful emotions, personal shortcomings, or family struggles, recruits must face them. The quiet suffocates them.

And then something amazing happens. They grow. Many recruits come to Christ, most come to a new peace in themselves, and all come to understand the poverty of living moment-to-moment in a fog of digital distraction.

The Scripture has taught the value of seclusion, quiet, and stillness for millennia. Even as Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” But it’s hard to be still when you’re constantly distracted, entertained, and scheduled to the hilt. Busyness intrudes.

Not unlike boot camp, COVID-19 has imposed on many of us a measure of solitude to which we are unaccustomed. It has enforced a slower pace of life. And while we, unlike Marine Corps recruits, continue to have access to countless digital distractions, I want to encourage you not to use them. Rather than seeking solace in Netflix, reengage with your family. Talk with your spouse. Write a letter to your nephew. Read the Bible, and a good book as well. Complete a puzzle. Take a nap. Play a board game. In short, slow down. Be still before the Lord, and be present with your family.

Sometimes we talk about “the calm before the storm”—that eerie moment of silence before storm winds crash into the trees. But maybe we ought to talk about the storm before the calm—the storm of busyness, distraction, entertainment, and work that so often consumes us, but which has suddenly, and maybe blessedly, given way to stillness.

COVID-19 may have forced you to be still, but I hope you use it, and increasingly choose it over all-consuming busyness.