A Coronavirus Litany

I had a post about prayer some time back which ended with a litany for the coronavirus. I’ve updated and expanded it, and I think it’s worth praying again.

That our leaders at every level may make wise decisions informed by science, medicine, common sense, and compassion, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That our medical professionals may be protected from sickness and have everything needed to treat those who are ill, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That we may be mindful especially of those most vulnerable, including the elderly and the immunocompromised, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That those who contract the virus or any other illness remember to stay at home if possible, get rest, and have plenty of fluids, and that they may have a speedy recovery, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That those who have lost their jobs or means of income may receive help from others for their daily needs, and that they may be able to return to their jobs quickly or find other employment, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That those who employ others may be able to find every means possible to keep their workers, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That scientists working on therapies or vaccines may be given insight into the workings of nature, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That the family and friends of those who are deceased from the virus may be comforted with love from God and neighbor, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That we may all remember to wash our hands frequently, stay in our homes as much as possible, and otherwise keep prudent physical distance from others, in order to protect and safeguard the health of our neighbors, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That we may have patience and compassion for our children, and renewed appreciation for their teachers, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That we may be moved to look out for our neighbors, and help them in the spirit of Christ, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That we may make the best use of our time at home to renew relationships, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That the course of the virus may be slowed and stopped in all the world, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord.

Amen.

Virtual Church

We had church online today.

To some, this doesn’t sound like a big deal. Maybe you’ve been “attending church” online for quite some time. Lots of churches stream services, and some of them even have online-only services.

We, of course, are having church online because of the coronavirus outbreak. Out of an abundance of caution, and particularly for the safety of our more vulnerable members, we are gathering to worship virtually rather than in person.

The Church has always used the latest technology to get the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ out. One of the more prominent examples is how the invention of the printing press enabled the writings of the Reformation period to spread far and wide. In our age, the Church has wisely made use of the Internet, including web sites, podcasts, live streaming, emails, and even online tithing.

But having services online is a different thing. Whether you call it Mass, Divine Service, Morning Prayer, or even just “church”, the weekly worship of the people of God on Sunday (or Saturday, with a nod to my Seventh-Day Adventist friends) is an inherently physical activity. Beyond just gathering together, we sit, stand, kneel, exchange smiles and glances, raise hands, fold hands, shake hands, and lay hands on each other in prayer.

Of course, the physical nature of Christian spirituality is most accentuated in the sacraments. In Baptism, we are united to Christ in his death and resurrection. Baptism is connected in Scripture to the flood story and the traversing of the sea by the people of Israel. We also recognize implicit connections to the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1, and the washing of Naaman to cure his leprosy. We are connected to Christ and to each other most intimately in the Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion or Eucharist), as Jesus offers his very self to us. Again, we see the connections in Jesus’ ministry everywhere, from his table fellowship with sinners, to the feedings of the five and four thousand, to his post-resurrection meals with his disciples (here, here, and here).

From this, it seems obvious that it would be wrong to think that worship is a purely spiritual activity and that we are merely carrying it out through physical limitations. No—worship is an inherently physical and spiritual activity carried out by physical and spiritual beings.

We see this in the Bible from beginning to end. Increasingly, biblical scholars are recognizing that the account of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3 represents the first “temple” where humans worshiped and communed with God (for a great overview of this theme in the Genesis story and throughout scripture, see Gregory Beale’s book The Temple and the Church’s Mission). Tending the garden temple was a priestly activity carried out by Adam and Eve. They had intimate communion with God as he walked among them. They were charged by God to expand the boundaries of the garden temple to the ends of the earth.

Sin resulted in separation from God and enmity between humans, as well as between humans and the creation they were supposed to steward. Relevant to our current circumstance, though viruses undoubtedly existed for billions of years before humankind, separation from the intimate presence of God results in our susceptibility to decay and death. And thus today this virus results in our physical separation–separation from the physical contact God designed us for and for which we desperately need.

It is fantastic that we had the ability, as many other churches did this morning, to meet virtually. Jesus joins us together as his people no matter what the circumstance. But we look forward to the day when we can meet together again in person as God intended, as he heals the brokenness of our relationships because of sin by the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As we do, we should be especially mindful today of the future promise that what happened to Jesus in his resurrection will happen to us and to the whole creation, as God renews heaven and earth. On that day, we will no longer fear sin, death, or viruses. Relationships will be fully healed.

In the meantime, we continue to love our neighbors as yourselves by washing hands, social distancing, staying home when sick, and reaching out to others in need in whatever way possible.

God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble.

Prayer and the Coronavirus

This past week, a stir was created about the following tweet of this photo:

I’m not interested in either supporting or attacking the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the context of this post. Similarly, though photo-ops of politicians praying is always a little dicey (though see David French’s take on this), I’m also not interested here in the question of why the photo was taken.

For me the real issue of interest is why a photo of politicians and others tasked to respond to the outbreak bowed in prayer should mean we are “screwed.” To be fair, it’s not a secret that the GOP doesn’t have the greatest track record on issues of science policy. If that’s your beef then I cannot argue otherwise.

But here the issue seems to be that they were praying in the first place. The implication is that there would be no science-based medical response, only prayers. Again, maybe the administration’s response will turn out to be flawed—or maybe it already is—but prayer isn’t the reason.

Lots of people these days seem to think that Christians just pray whenever something goes wrong and then sit around waiting for God to do something. Caveat again—sometimes promises of prayers do sound very hollow, especially when coming out of the mouths of politicians who are ostensibly in a position to enact policy to solve problems.

But this fundamentally misunderstands what the vast majority of Christians, both now and through the centuries, have believed about what prayer actually does. Prayer is not a substitute for action. Rather, it is a preparation for it and often a summons to it. Conversely, those who pray and then do not respond to the evils of the world with action are not behaving biblically. Prayer and action are supposed to go hand-in-glove.

Prayer is fundamentally about orienting ourselves in relationship to God. Part of that is indeed asking him to protect us from all manner of ills and enemies, including viruses. But we know that protection usually comes about because of medicine and experienced doctors and surgeons, which though of proximate human origin are ultimately good gifts from the Creator. As a Christian, I do believe that God can heal people without such intervention, but we are not enjoined by Scripture to expect such a thing automatically. So, the vast majority of Christians both pray and seek the best medical attention they have available—and there is no cognitive dissonance necessary. Most prayers for healing even begin with words such as “guide the hands of the doctors and the nurses” or something similar.

So I am happy for our leaders to pray in a situation like this—but then they need to get moving, with God’s help at their backs, to mobilize the scientific and medical communities to combat the spread of this virus. To do otherwise would be irresponsible, including in the eyes of God.

Responses like the above tweet are not just ill-conceived—they perpetuate the perceived war between science and religion and help to convince religious people that scientists and science are against them. Whether you believe in God and prayer or not, since people who do are not going away, it’s better to not drive this wedge further. Better to let those of us who are scientists in religious communities try to educate our brothers and sisters better in the proper relationship between science and their faith.

So, in liturgical fashion, let us pray for a resolution to the coronavirus outbreak:

That our leaders may make wise decisions informed by science, medicine, and common sense,
let us pray to the Lord.

That our medical professionals may be kept from sickness and have everything needed to treat the ill, let us pray to the Lord.

That those who contract the virus remember to stay at home, get rest, and have plenty of fluids, and that they may have a speedy recovery, let us pray to the Lord.

That the family and friends of those who are deceased from the virus may be comforted with love from God and neighbor, let us pray to the Lord.

That we may all remember to wash our hands and keep prudent distance from others, in order to protect and safeguard the health of our neighbors, let us pray to the Lord.

Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord.

The Objectivity of Baptism

This is a long quote, but a great one, showing that the Christian’s assurance of God’s favor should not be directed to their own internal feelings or good works but Christ himself, and that we have a personal, objective reminder of that in this world:

The subjective access which we have to our own histories, then, does not provide a platform from which we may leap to certainty about ourselves. We cannot claim that the final meaning of our lives is luminous to us by introspection. There is a place for certainty, for the ‘assurance’ upon which Calvinist Christians have insisted so rightly, but it is founded not on introspection but on faith in the objective word of God. In examining the apparent meaning of our past lives, we have to confess its ambiguity, its failure to give clear expression to the reality which must shape it. Therefore we continually turn back from these appearances of ourselves to the reality itself…

In contrast to the hiddenness of the formative moment we are given a public sign that keeps it before our minds and prevents our ignoring it, as we can so easily ignore what is hidden about other people. The sign is baptism. It is a ritual, and therefore liable to the loss of significance which can befall any ritual when it is taken out of its proper context of understanding. It is a sign, and therefore distinct from the reality to which it points. Nevertheless, a ritual sign is the only appropriate way for the hidden moment of conversion to take public form; for without such a form the reality, given from outside man’s sphere of activity, lying beyond the scope of even his religious capabilities, will be in danger of confusion with the merely human acts of repentance of belief which it produces. Neither an individual’s belief, nor his love for God, nor his appearance of repentance and moral seriousness, however impressive it may be, can assure us of the redemptive presence of Christ. Only the sign itself, because it is given by Christ, can give a public assurance that God’s redemptive grace is active in the world and that this person too will encounter it, so entitling us to read the indications in the candidate’s subjective and active life hopefully, as evidence of the Spirit’s activity. Baptism does not point to the high moments of devotion or to the sustained achievements of moral fibre of which the human spirit is capable, but to the formative moment in which the whole of a person’s life, past and future, is taken up and pronounced upon by God in the ‘Yes’ that he has spoken and will speak in Christ.

Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 2nd Ed., pp. 258-259

Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust

Painting by Julian Fałat, 1881

In the Western Christian calendar, today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. Lent is the 40-day season of reflection and repentance before the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.

This evening, my wife and son and I will go to an Ash Wednesday service at our church, where we will enter in darkness and silence, sing somber songs, and hear this call:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

2019 Book of Common Prayer

After readings and prayers, we will present ourselves at the front for the imposition of ashes on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. The ashes symbolize our mortality. For each of us, the priest says:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

These words are from Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve had fallen into sin, and God pronounces the sentence of death upon them as punishment. In Genesis 2, God made human beings from the dust of the earth. There was nothing bad in God’s eyes about our being made from dust. He made us that way, after all. But it does remind us of how finite and dependent we are.

Since we are made of the dust of the earth, the Bible is teaching (though not in a scientific way) that we are made of the same stuff as the rest of creation. Science fills out the details of this picture by revealing that we ourselves, all life on Earth, the Earth itself, the other planets in our Solar System, the Sun, and all other stars are made of atoms, which are made of electrons, protons, and neutrons. The latter two are made still further of quarks. We don’t yet know if this hierarchy goes down further. We also don’t know what makes up the mysterious substance called “dark matter”, which makes up some 90% of the matter in the universe. Nevertheless, we have well-founded suspicions that all of these forms of matter are unified in a single physical description somehow.

But where did the atoms come from? Well, firstly there is hydrogen, just one proton and one electron. It was formed in the first few minutes after the Big Bang, along with helium and a smattering of other elements. But in order for life’s chemistry to work, we need heavier elements, like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, etc. These were formed billions of years later in the centers of stars by nuclear fusion. In one form or another, when these stars died, they released these elements out into space, which mixed into clouds of gas, which under the relentless pull of gravity became new stars and planets. Eventually, some of these elements formed the Earth. And some of them ended up in you and me. As astronomer Carl Sagan rightly said in his book Cosmos, “we are made of star stuff.”

The periodic table of the elements, colored by cosmic origin. The human figure at right shows the proportion of elements which originated from various processes. (Credit: NASA/CXC/K. Divona)

What a crazy thought. The seemingly ordinary atoms which make up you and me were forged in the fiery furnaces of the Big Bang, the interiors of stars, and stellar explosions. We are made of stardust. Because of our humanity, we are a lot more than that, but we are stardust all the same.

From stardust you are, and to stardust you shall return.

There is thus something inherently cosmic about our existence and our finiteness. In God’s plan, there was also something very good about it. He intended to sustain us from the beginning against the decay inherent in a good cosmos that yet still needed consummation and final completion. That’s what the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden was for. But because of human sin, we are separated from the presence of God, and return to disordered stardust at the end of our lives.

If the story I have told isn’t strange enough, it gets even more incredible. The Bible teaches that God himself became part of our finite existence. In the first chapter of his Gospel, St. John says “the Word became flesh” in the person of Jesus Christ. Flesh made from dust. The Word became dust.

The Word became stardust.

Though he lived a life without sin, Jesus returned to the stardust from which he came in his death on the cross. The Bible teaches that this death was the atoning sacrifice for sin and the defeat of the evil powers that array themselves against God and humanity. 40 days from now, on Easter we will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus into new bodily life. Life breathed back into dead stardust, but this time for all eternity.

Thus Jesus’ resurrection is more than only the guarantee of our own resurrection as we trust in his promise, though of course it is certainly this first. It is also God’s final stamp of approval on creation itself, the re-pronouncement of “very good” upon its existence. The redemption of humans is thus in this sense connected to the redemption of the entire cosmos. The very use of the ashes themselves in the Ash Wednesday rite also symbolizes this, as the ordinary (star-)dust of the earth is used to communicate a spiritual truth in a profoundly physical way.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.