Many thought that the anger, vitriol and deep-seated rage against both left and right in our nation would expose how we have lost our moorings. But a new situation showed up to upstage the dark side of culture’s dysfunction. A new symptom has emerged over the last several weeks.
As our world has been rattled by COVID-19, we have seen panic sink in like a deep mist that has paralyzed the imagination of our society. Most of us have never encountered a situation that has swept across our nation like a flood of this magnitude. Fear continues to squeeze and grind us in the crucible of life. As I write this, grocery, big box and warehouse stores are having a difficult time keeping items on the shelves due to the run on toilet paper and other paper products, cleaning supplies and food — even the non-perishable kinds. People are hoarding. Long lines in the stores with people diving for the last pack of something before someone else gets it.
It stands to reason, sort of. The coronavirus has been in the news for many weeks, and the more we hear about it the more it has invaded our consciousness. The more this happens, other fears jump on and the snowball grows. Fear of getting sick. Fear of spreading the contagion. Fear of the unknown that surrounds so much of this virus. And the snowball has created an avalanche that sends a freight train barreling into the greatest fear of most humans: death.
Our culture lives on fear. It has become the air we breathe; the water we drink; the food we eat; the choice of entertainment (what is entertainment but that which holds our attention); and the currency of politics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been working, burning the midnight oil to help educate the nation and help quell anxieties. But their efforts feel like Sisyphus in his attempt to roll a huge stone up the hill. It’s like plugging a leaking dam with a band-aid.
Fear is so primal. It gives us somewhere to place our focus and attention. It allows us to blame whoever we want for a myriad of reasons. Many describe fear as “fight or flight.” Maybe all the hysteria for stocking on an Armageddon’s worth of toilet paper is the reaction to fight. Maybe stocking up on bleach and floor cleaner is an attempt to hide away from this storm that is wreaking havoc on the world. But there’s that third rail of fear that paralyzes us and arrests us. We’ve sunk into our primitive brains and cut off our ability for higher reasoning and logic. We can’t think calmly because this basic-instinct-part of our brain has taken over. At some point though when we can catch a breath, when we have a moment of exhaustion from all our worry and anxiety, does our faith have a chance to move us to our higher brain functions?
I love the story of John and Charles Wesley, the founders of the Methodist movement, and their voyage across the Atlantic in 1735. A huge storm caught them in its clutches. Most of the passengers on the ship were scared out of their wits, but this small band of German Moravians, a group of Christians whose faith was so strong in God, whose faith was so firmly planted in God they sat together very still, and lifted their voices together in worship through singing hymns! John and Charles both thought it was bizarre. How in the world could they do that? Weren’t they afraid? No. Weren’t they terrified like the rest of them? Not at all. In Psalm 61, we find these words: “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.” (Psalm 61.2b-3 NRSV) Their faith in Jesus Christ, that God had saved them from their sins, that God is with them in their present need, and that God will save them for eternity in the hour of their death, so what is there to fear?
I’ve seen posters and t-shirts that say, “Faith over fear.” We can trust that God will see us through this pandemic. One pastor said recently, “I wasn’t trained in seminary how to deal with a pandemic.” Another pastor responded, “Yes you have if you had Church History.” The Church has been here before. It’s our Christian heritage that started hospitals and care for the sick. It’s our Christian heritage that has worked through science to discover medicines and ways to treat the ill and infirmed. It is our Christian heritage that has held the torchlight out for the world in the midst of darkness. It is our Christian heritage, firmly rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ, through his birth, life, death and resurrection, God is bringing full salvation. We have this heritage! We have this faith!
Faith is like a muscle — the more we use it the stronger it gets. The less we use it the weaker it gets. Let us resolve in this soon coming season of Eastertide that we celebrate the resurrection and new life because Jesus was raised from the dead, to stand firm in faith for the sake of our world. May we weather this storm rooted in the rock that is higher than we are, rooted in this One who is our rock and our fortress, our shield and our defender. May we with sound mind and body listen and internalize the wisdom of our science community and trust that these safety measures will help keep us safe without resorting to fear, anxiety, and hysteria. May we remember and may we resolve to live faith over fear.
Rev. Michael Scarlett is pastor of the First Methodist Church in Pocatello. He is a member of the Portneuf Valley Interfaith Fellowship.