Just a little over two and a half months ago, I was in Puerto Rico on a mission trip with some members of our church. A series of earthquakes had impacted the southern part of the island. We had originally committed to work in San Juan, in the north, to help replace roofs which had been damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017, a devastating hurricane costing an estimated 90 billion dollars in damages. The earthquakes changed our schedule as help was needed in the south. While we were there, the leader of our motley crew, Calvin McFarland (aka “C Mac”) mentioned a virus that was making the news in China. I remember him mentioning this to me 4 or 5 times during the week. His phone would pop up a new headline from time to time and he would share it with me and a few others who were around at the time. One of his statements I can still hear ringing in my ear: “This thing could get out of hand in a hurry if we’re not careful.”
Looking back now, I feel really silly for not paying more attention to what he was telling me. I couldn’t even pronounce the name of the virus. All I knew was that it started with a “c” and that it was in China. At the time, I didn’t know the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic (the dictionary on my phone brought me up to speed). In my inexcusable ignorance, I thought the virus was “over there”…and I am “over here”…and that was that. Don’t get me wrong, I was concerned for China and I certainly was praying it could be managed, people would be spared, and that a vaccine or a cure would solve the dilemma and that it would happen quickly. But I never dreamed “we” were in any danger. After all, this is America…the USA…red, white, and blue. I am from Tennessee and I pastor a church in Kentucky. The Cracker Barrels in both states know me by name. All the really bad stuff out there happened in other places, other countries, other continents. I would have said the same thing in the early morning hours of September 11, 2001 as well.
I became a tad wiser in September of ’01. I came face to face with the brutal truth that I didn’t know everything. My sheltered life near the mountains of Appalachia had set up parameters in my brain and heart that had convinced me I was immune to the bigger things floating around the globe. This morning, sitting on my porch watching the cars go by, I find myself, again, a tad wiser. I now know the name of the virus that started with a “c.” Truth be told, I had to be tested for it after a series of very uncomfortable days with flu-like symptoms. I was cleared…thankfully. But as a diabetic with a recent history of breathing/lung issues…I have to stay on my toes…we all do.
A lady walked by a moment ago and offered a friendly wave. I waved back. I did not know her…she was just being friendly. She was wearing a mask. Three months ago, I would have called that crazy. Today, she is a smart woman. Globally, some 1,349,746 confirmed cases of the coronavirus have been documented and 72,974 people have died. Tragically, before I hit the “publish” button here in a few minutes, those numbers will have changed. To help bring a focus to the number of deaths, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, LA will seat 73,370. Trying to imagine those kinds of numbers is almost impossible for us. As for our untouchable country, a total of 337,797 confirmed cases are on the books…with 9,670 deaths.
My son is a senior in high school. Graduation looms, prom…college this fall…the norms are on hold. Yesterday I preached for the third week in a row in an empty sanctuary. Churches being closed sounds funny, doesn’t it? I can run through a drive-thru to grab something to munch on…but I can’t go inside and eat. Recently a family member died in western Kentucky. The family told us the funeral home did not want the extended family coming in for a funeral…a huge blow to be sure. When you are raised in the south, supporting your family is about as high a priority you will ever find. Sitting in the coffee shop…can’t do it. Making visits as a pastor…not supposed to. Hospital visitation…nope. It’s springtime…and everything is frozen. Essential businesses are functioning on a basic level…while some can work from home…others have been sent home. Every sporting event you can think of has been cancelled or rescheduled for later in the fall. And just a couple of days ago, I was in our local Walmart where I discovered arrows on the floor directing my steps and some very nice people were telling me no more than 4 families were allowed in an aisle at a time. I personally have washed my hands more times in the last two weeks than I have in the last 10 years (admit it…you have to).
Where am I? I am here…so are you. We press on. We have to. These are indeed difficult and uncertain days. I keep hearing the word, “unprecedented,” being used a great deal. That’s probably about a good a word as any I suppose. We’ve added “coronavirus” and “social distancing” to our list of common words…but as our vocabulary is expanding, I hope and pray we do not toss other words like faith, hope, and love. Our church buildings may be closed…but the church lives on. Our response to these days will reveal what we believe and what we are really made of. The coronavirus might complicate things…but it might also get us all to think about what our priorities in life should really be. God teaches us many things at the heights of joy and blessings…to be sure. But He teaches us much more in the valleys…the hard and difficult times. Schools are closed…but class is in session. May we pay attention…and listen to the Teacher.
Blessings my friends. To quote my dear friend Lance Abbott: “Keep on keeping on.”