Scripture Reading: Lamentations 4:1-24
If you’re like me, and you’ve been following this particular series from the book of Lamentations, you may have already drawn a parallel between the experience of those left behind after Jerusalem’s fall and our own experience of the fallout of coronavirus pandemic. I’m not suggesting that they’re the same, because they’re not. A quick reading of Lamentations chapter 4 makes that clear. We haven’t abandoned our children. We’re not starving and malnourished. And we certainly aren’t opting for the survival of self by consuming our own [deceased, I assume] children. Clearly, that kind of suffering is utterly horrifying. None of us can even imagine what that level of desperation feels like. For that we can be thankful! But even though we’re not in the same place as them, we nevertheless find ourselves in a situation which, for many, will certainly become desperate if it’s not already.
If you’re following the news, you know the situation is still pretty ugly. Obviously, there’s no way to predict the future with 100% accuracy, but some of the experts out there certainly are painting a dire picture of the near future. For example, on Friday the governor of California ordered all 40 million residents to stay home after it was projected that 56% of the state’s population – over 25 million people – will be infected with the virus over an 8-week period. (On a personal level, that prediction caught my attention right away on account of the fact that my sister lives out there, and as a Physician’s Assistant she’s literally on the “front lines” right now. No doubt she’s been already exposed to COVID-19 multiple times in her line of work.) The fact that they’re predicting more than half of the state to become infected is very alarming.
But, of course, it’s not just the possibility of being infected that has us all concerned. There’s the inevitable economic impact that it’s going to affect all of us. Some of you have already been laid off from work. In the weeks ahead, more people will lose their jobs. It’s staggering to think that large companies which employ thousands of people and have been around for a very long time could go belly-up as a result of this pandemic.
And if all that weren’t bad enough right now, we’re now learning about a growing locust infestation in the Horn of Africa, wiping out entire livelihoods of farmers across that part of the continent. We’re told that it’s only a matter of time before they make their way into the Middle East. One statistic I read says that right now the locusts eat enough food every day to feed 35,000 people a day. The sad thing is, they have proven ways of dealing with locust infestations, but they’re unable to utilize those means because the coronavirus is currently keeping people and equipment from getting there.
Here’s my point. Most of us may not be experiencing what the Lamentations Poet experienced, but right now we’re dealing with our own type of devastation, which will affect all of us to one degree or another. This is our current reality.
As people of faith, what should be our response? You may already have a sense of where I’m going with this, but let me begin by suggesting what our response should not be.
First, as people of faith, we’re not called to assign blame. Let me clarify. At this point in time it’s fairly clear that this pandemic was something we’d been warned about by experts. Those who threw up warning flags are telling us that our country could have been prepared for it had we heeded the warnings. If that’s so (and unfortunately it is), then it’s easy to point fingers at those we feel should have been listening: government leaders, big business, big pharmaceutical companies, etc. Now, maybe there’s some truth to that, but at this point in time casting blame isn’t all that helpful. Besides that, you know what they say about pointing your finger at someone: When you do that, there’s one finger pointing at someone else and three pointing back at yourself! The truth is, we’re all guilty of not listening, not heeding a warning. It probably won’t result in a failure to be prepared for a pandemic, but it can have other consequences.
There’s a famous saying (the authorship of which is still being debated) which goes like this: There but for the grace of God go I. How many times have other people experienced the consequences of their poor life choices only for us to realize that we’ve done the same things but for whatever reason were spared the consequence. Every one of us can look at those folks and humbly confess, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The truth is, as soon as we start blaming others for their failure to act we could easily identify ways we’ve done the same thing in our personal lives. The followers of Jesus want to display the attitude of humility.
There’s another group of people we really have to refrain from blaming, and that’s the people of China and anyone of Chinese descent. Because Wuhan, China, was identified as the epicenter of the coronavirus, there are reports of a growing number of assaults on Asians and Asian-Americans simply because they’re Chinese – or just look Chinese. Now, my guess (and hope) is that none of you listening to me are guilty of physically or verbally assaulting an Asian or Asian-American because of this. But how about your heart? Even if you don’t verbalize it out loud, do you still find yourself making Chinese people the scapegoat, as though it’s their fault? If, please know that doing so is simply wrong, and there’s no two ways about it. If you find yourself blaming the Chinese for the Coronavirus, or referring to it as the “Chinese virus,” the first thing to do is to stop it! Confess it, repent of it, and ask God to give you a new heart. Again it comes down to an attitude of humility.
There’s a second response I think is important to avoid, which is crying out that the sky is falling andbuying into the belief that we’re doomed, that it’s the end of the world. That’s simply not true. Humanity has survived pandemics for as long as viruses have been around. No doubt, the coronavirus is probably going to change how we do things for a long time, maybe even forever. For example, this past week I watched a number of church leadership webinars aimed at helping pastors begin to think about and plan for changes to the ways we do church, even beyond the next 8-12 weeks. These church futurists are looking into their ‘crystal balls’ and saying that local churches—including our own– are now being forced to adopt new means of doing ministry. Specifically, they’re saying that that churches can no longer get away with only doing ‘analog’ ministry in a digital world. Today, March 22, 92-95% of the churches in the United States are not worshiping in their physical buildings. Instead, we’re finding a way to do it online somehow. Some are live streaming. Others, like us, pre-record and upload it to a website and Facebook. But there’s probably some truth to the fact that we’ve been pushed into finding and creating ways to do virtual church from this point on. The point is, even though it’s changing, life will go on; the sky is not falling.
And that leads us into talking about how we should we respond to our current crisis.
Taking a cue from the Lamentations Poet, the first thing to do – which, I’m happy to say we’ve been doing—is to be real with ourselves about our situation. If you’re self-quarantining and going out only if you have to, if you’re regularly following the recommended safety precautions, if you’re keeping a safe distance from others when you are out, then that’s being honest. Even though it can be difficult, it’s especially important to be honest when things are bad; it simply doesn’t help to naively act as if things are better than they really are – which will only make matters worse in the end.
In the fourth poem of Lamentations, the Poet doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He’s not trying to be overly dramatic or sensational, but he does report the ugly truth of what’s happening in his city of Jerusalem. He reports that parents are abandoning their own children. They’re ignoring their cries of hunger and not even trying to comfort them. Here’s how he puts it: “Even the jackals feed their young, but not my people Israel. They ignore their children’s cries, like ostriches in the desert. The parched tongues of their little ones stick to the roofs of their mouths in thirst. The children cry for bread, but no one has any to give them” (vv. 3-4). Clearly, food is scarce for everyone, as verse 5 conveys: “The people who once ate the richest foods now beg in the streets for anything they can get. Those who once wore the finest clothes now search the garbage dumps for food.” The verses which follow basically describe a people who are slowly starving to death.
But it’s v. 10 that really makes us gag – and there’s no nice way of putting it. “Tenderhearted women have cooked their own children. They have eaten them to survive the siege.” The Poet doesn’t try to put a spin the situation. No, he tells it like it is. He’s honest with himself and with those who will read about it in years to come. The rest of chapter 4 pretty much follows the same pattern.
But then in v. 22 we find a different perspective. He proclaims a tiny bit of good news to his people: “O beautiful Jerusalem, your punishment will end; you will soon return from exile.” In other words, what we’re going through right now will end; it won’t last forever.
This reminds me of a positive coronavirus statistic I read this week. It’s easy to focus on the number of people who’ve died from the virus, and unfortunately we see that statistic rise every day. But as of yesterday, (March 21, at 6:45 p.m.), according to the website worldometer.com, globally there 304,601 confirmed coronavirus cases. 13,000 have died from the virus, but 94,793 people have recovered. Far more have recovered than have died (another reason to say that the sky is NOT falling).
Another statistic out of the UK is that of the 80 years and older crowd who were confirmed with the virus, they’re anticipating that 90% of them will survive.
These positive statistic are also part of the reality. There’s clearly a unhappy side to what’s happening these days, but it’s not the only story to tell. Many more are surviving the virus than are dying from it! I think that’s important to keep in mind. And because of these numbers, we know that it’s going to eventually end – at least as we’re experiencing it right now. We are not doomed to be quarantined in our homes forever.
Which brings us to the second way that persons of faith should respond, which is to continue trusting God, to give God thanks for his continued blessings (because we can all name some right now if we had to), and to, yes, praise him! Even during the most challenging of times, coming before God Almighty with trust, gratitude, and praise is never inappropriate or out of place.
- Ephesians 5:20 – “Give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
- 1 Thessalonians 5:18 — “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.”
- Psalm 34:1 – “I will praise the Lord at all times. I will constantly speak his praises.”
You and I believe that God’s in control . We may not know the details of what that control looks like, but it’s our conviction that no disease can thwart God’s purposes and plans for his people. Being thankful, being trusting, and praising God in the midst of this hardship doesn’t mean we have to like it, or even that we have to think it’s God’s will. But being thankful, being trusting, and praising God are always appropriate responses to life.
Here’s a question. In the midst of watching children being abandoned and eaten by their parents, and everyone around him starving to death, what do you suppose gave the Poet the wherewithal to see the light at the end of the tunnel? What enabled him to perceive an end to their suffering so that he could boldly proclaim, “O beautiful Jerusalem, your punishment will end; you will soon return from exile”? We can’t say for certainty what motivated him to say that. But I think it’s possible that he was repeating what he’d heard the prophets speak in the past. Yes, they warned the people of their impending doom. But in the same breath, they also told them that they would be restored; that they would return to their hometowns and start over again. Today, we know that that did happen–70 years later. The Poet claimed for himself and his people the promise made by the prophets.
Well, how about we hold on to that same promise! Let’s claim for ourselves the vision of the prophets which was given to them by God. This will not continue on forever. It has an end. There’s always an end to suffering. Yes, sometimes that end is death itself – but for the Christian it really isn’t an end, but a beginning. But for those who remain – which will be the great majority of us – the end will be the end of the pandemic, which will allow us to get back to life as we basically knew it.
No doubt their experience of the Jerusalem’s destruction forever changed the survivors, whether they were the ones left behind or the ones who were exiled. Their lives were never the same. And it just may be that this coronavirus pandemic will forever change our society. But no matter what may change in this world, we worship and follow a God who never changes. Whose love for us never fades. Whose faithfulness toward us never falters. And whose abiding presence among us never ceases. That’s the Good News for today.