Eucharist Against the Pandemic

We began having weekly Eucharistic services outside several weeks ago in our congregation. It has been wonderful to gather around both the Body of Christ in the form of his people as well as the Body of Christ in the form of the bread, as well as the Blood of Christ in the form of wine.

But it’s different. We practice physical distancing. We all wear masks. Hand sanitizer and masks are used by the priest in distribution of the elements. The bread itself comes in individually wrapped plastic. The wine is poured out from a flask which the individual families bring from their own homes.

Thus the central act of Christian worship, which is designed to bring us together, is necessarily being carried out with physical barriers of all kinds.

Though it grieves us, this of course is the right thing to do. The coronavirus (being a virus) does not care much for the reason we are eating and drinking. There is no promise attached to the eating and drinking of our Lord’s body and blood that the laws of physics and biology will stop working while we do so. We can still catch the virus from sharing food and drink together in close proximity, and so we take precautions.

And yet our partaking in the Eucharist, after many months of fasting from it for the sake of the health of our neighbors, is now, as it always has been, a reassertion of the goodness of creation and our role as humans within it, even and especially in the midst of pandemic. The Creator-God brought order out of the watery chaos in the beginning (Genesis 1:2). He places humans in a garden paradise, tasking them to serve as priests over the creation-temple he had made, amplifying its fruitfulness, extending its flourishing over the whole earth, and gathering it all up in acts of worship back to God (Genesis 2). This will not be an easy job, as there are dark forces already in their midst (Genesis 3), and the relentless march of the increase of entropy, while a necessary feature of the world in which we live during the present age, is always working to return the order of creation back to the disorder from which it came. As we know, Adam and Eve decide to give the authority God had given them over to the forces of sin, darkness, disorder, and death, and the future of God’s creation project appears imperiled.

Christians believe that God’s answer to this predicament is Jesus. Jesus has come and succeeded where Adam failed (Romans 5:12-21). His works of healing (Matthew 8:14-16) and power over the forces of creation (Mark 4:35-41) demonstrated the wise rule over the world in which God had intended for humans to participate from the beginning. By his death, our sin and rebellion is forgiven and atoned for, and his resurrection guarantees our own resurrection (1 Corinthians 15) and the eventual healing of all creation (Romans 8:18-25, Revelation 21:1-5).

When we lift the bread and the cup in Jesus’ name, when his presence is made known in the midst of creation, when we gather the fruits of creation and offer them back to God in a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” we are setting a marker that the forces of anti-creation, including the coronavirus, do not have the final say. Jesus has defeated death and that one day that victory will be spread throughout the whole world. And we then go out to anticipate this victory in the present by pushing back against the virus itself–by practicing good hygiene, wearing masks, keeping physical distance, and looking out especially for the most vulnerable. In other words, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Some of us, depending on our callings, will be pushing back in a more direct way, rushing into the places of most danger by taking care of the sick and the dying. Others are called to work on therapies and vaccines. Above all, we cover all this activity with prayer, invoking the Spirit’s work over everything we do, and bearing witness to the Good News about Jesus the entire time.

So, even in the midst of masks and sanitizer, may this be our prayer as we join in the meal the Lord gave us:

Heavenly Father,
We thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food
  of the most precious Body and Blood
  of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ;
  and for assuring us in these holy mysteries
  that we are living members of the body of your Son,
  and heirs of your eternal Kingdom.
And now, Father, send us out do to the work you have
  given us to do,
  to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.
To him, to you, and to the Holy Spirit,
  be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer (2019)

What God’s Power Looks Like

My three year-old son, separated from his preschool due to the coronavirus, has been asking for the songs they sing there. One of them is a jazzed-up kiddie version of the hymn, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God.” The relevant lyrics which keep ringing through my head are:

There’s no greater power than the power of our God!
There’s no greater power than the power of our God!

I sing the mighty power of God that made the mountains rise,
That spread the flowing seas abroad, and made the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that designed the sun to rule the day;
The moon shines full at his command, and all the stars obey.

Then there’s his Jesus Storybook Bible. One of his favorite stories is that of Jesus calming the storm (Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25). The creative way the book describes the moment when Jesus wakes up in the boat and calms the storm goes like this:

Jesus stood up and spoke to the storm. “Hush!” He said. That’s all. And then the strangest thing happened…

The wind and the waves recognized Jesus’ voice.

(They had heard it before, of course—it was the same voice that made them, in the very beginning.) They listened to Jesus and did what he said.

We had a strong storm here in Massachusetts the other day, which scared the dickens out of my kid. He mentioned this story, hoping that Jesus would do the same thing. I’m sure that the disciples saw plenty of storms after that one with Jesus that weren’t stopped; though they probably didn’t get into a boat in the same way ever again.

The hymn and the story are tough to celebrate these days. In the midst of a pandemic, it’s hard not to feel that Jesus should step in again with all of that power of his and just put it all to a stop. And it’s easy to struggle with doubts when he doesn’t.

We’re not alone. The Hebrew Scriptures themselves contain the twin paradox of God’s ultimate power over nature and the fact that his people often wonder if he has forgotten them. On the one hand, in the Genesis 1 creation account, God speaks and things just happen, hence the refrain, “And it was so.” No struggle. No unruly forces of nature to wrangle and subdue. The cosmos is fully obedient to God’s voice.

In the book of Job, Job is the most righteous man alive, but Satan claims that he only listens to God because of how prosperous he is. God allows Satan to take away his possessions, his family, and inflict him with terrible sickness. Though Job doesn’t curse God, he cries out to God in confusion. He knows that God rules the world, and could have done something about it. God answers him with his own set of questions about the inner workings of nature, showing that his ways can be as inscrutable as they are absolute. Psalm 89 also recognizes this supreme power of God:

Lord, the heavens praise your wonders—
your faithfulness also—
in the assembly of the holy ones.
For who in the skies can compare with the Lord?
Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord?
God is greatly feared in the council of the holy ones,
more awe-inspiring than all who surround him.
Lord God of Armies,
who is strong like you, Lord?
Your faithfulness surrounds you.
You rule the raging sea;
when its waves surge, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like one who is slain;
you scattered your enemies with your powerful arm.
The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours.
The world and everything in it—you founded them.
North and south—you created them.

Psalm 89:5-12a, CSB

yet later in the Psalm, the writer despairs because this all-powerful God seems to be missing:

How long, Lord? Will you hide forever?
Will your anger keep burning like fire?
Remember how short my life is.
Have you created everyone for nothing?
What courageous person can live and never see death?
Who can save himself from the power of Sheol?
Lord, where are the former acts of your faithful love
that you swore to David in your faithfulness?
Remember, Lord, the ridicule against your servants—
in my heart I carry abuse from all the peoples—
how your enemies have ridiculed, Lord,
how they have ridiculed every step of your anointed.

Psalm 89:46-51, CSB

An extensive discussion of these issues can be found in Harvard professor Jon Levenson’s book Creation and the Persistence of Evil.

As we Christians wait and pray for God to deliver us from the coronavirus, and wonder why it’s taking so long, it may help us to remember what the Scriptures tell us God’s power ultimately looks like. For a clue, we can look at the account of Jesus’ crucifixion in St. Matthew’s Gospel. The sun turns to darkness. There is an earthquake. Cosmos becomes chaos the moment its Creator loses his battle with the forces of death and decay and succumbs to their power. Jesus, the Son of God himself, now echoes the ancient and confused cries of the Psalmist, as well as our cries now: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” A hymn expresses it majestically:

Hear Him cry out, the Word made flesh,                       
Who called all things to be;

The sun, which knows His voice so well,                                   
In shock holds back its beams.  
                                                 
Hear how He groans, while nature shakes,
And earth’s strong pillars bend!

The temple’s veil in sunder breaks,
The solid marbles rend.

With the hindsight of resurrection faith, we see that God’s power was displayed most not in the creation of all things, but fully in subjecting himself to the forces of chaos, decay, and death within that creation. As St. Paul said in the letter to the Colossians:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Colossians 1:15-20, 2:13-15, CSB

Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God is bringing order to his broken world. The verdict has been pronounced; the endgame is clear–but we now await the consummation. The powers of death and decay still lash out at God’s good creation, including in the form of infectious diseases, but they will not have the last word. As we pray for an end to the pandemic, we see the power of God in the suffering of Jesus reflected in the self-sacrificial love of those who put their lives on the line to save others.

No, the Scientists Did Not Screw Up the Coronavirus Models

The models for the coronavirus have definitely evolved for the better in the US–and the number of projected deaths has decreased. That’s good. 

The bad thing is that the immediate reaction of some is to say the scientists got it wrong and that we never should have believed them to begin with. I am not an epidemiologist, but I am a professional scientist, so I can make some general comments about modeling. 

TL;DR: The scientists did not screw this up. For the details read on. 

To oversimplify things a bit, when you make a model you have the general physical form. More specifically, how it behaves over time, expressed mathematically. Is it linear, exponential, or something more complicated? There’s a really good Medium post that goes into this in detail. But this mathematical model has all of these parameters, like how fast a virus spreads, what time the effect of social distancing overpowers the spreading of the virus, etc. And you need to select values for these parameters based on data. 

And the data are things like: how fast did it spread in other countries? How fast has it spread here already? What has been the effect of social distancing? How many people are social distancing? What does the effect of limited medical resources have on the number of deaths? And so on.

To some degree you only know these things within some range, so you need to take that into account. And in a situation like this, you need to make conservative estimates for these parameters which overestimate the number of cases/deaths, because it is far better to say “well, we ended up saving more people than we thought” than “we totally underestimated this number and now our hospitals are incapacitated.” For example, the CDC director said the other day that they made a conservative estimate about the fraction of Americans that would actually follow social distancing guidelines, which was around 50%. Apparently it’s been higher.

So as time goes on and you get better and more data, the model changes, because you change the parameters and the uncertainty hopefully gets smaller. Also, you might be able to make improvements to the mathematical form of the model with more information. It doesn’t mean the scientists screwed up–it means that we had incomplete information before and now we have more information. Scientists, like all of us, are not perfect, and make mistakes, but that doesn’t appear to be what happened here. 

What seems very likely is that without any social distancing at all–it is highly probable that millions would have died here, our medical system would have been overtaxed, and you would have ended up with an economy in the toilet anyway. 

So the essence of it is that what we are doing is hard, but it is working. We need to get a plan going to get back to work, which will include massive amounts of testing, but in the meantime, let’s keep this up. I know it’s easy for me to say. It is definitely much harder for many people than it has been for me, since I didn’t lose a job or a business. But I know that millions of people who are medically vulnerable, and our front-line medical workers, firefighters, police, grocery workers, pharmacists, and many others who are keeping our country going in spite of the danger of getting very sick are very grateful.

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.