Easter 2020, picture by Chris Cos
None of us need a prophet to tell us this is going to be known as the year of the COVID-19 virus: a year unlike any in recent memory. But I think what’s going to be unique about it is not the pandemic quality of it. No, I think what is ultimately going to stand out and be highlighted as people look back on this year is the concentrated effort of international cooperation to control, avoid, and conquer this disorder. This is a pan-global compliance we’ve seen all too rarely, if ever on this scale.
Why do I focus here and not on the disease itself? Because in my past I’ve lived through several global epidemics, some of them as ravaging as this deadly virus. In fact, right before I was born, my sister, as a small child, nearly died in the Scarlet Fever epidemic.
I arrived a healthy little infant. Then the measles pandemic hit when I was 3 and nearly took my life as it killed so many other children. I emerged with a shaken auto-immune system which didn’t know when to stop attacking the measles. So, I was ever after beset with a variety of residual auto-immune diseases right up until today – my body attacking an illness now long gone. In my youth, it settled on attacking my skin and my lungs. So many nights I could not lie down but slept sitting up, wheezing. No inhalers in those days, just a machine called a Puritron, attempting to condition the air free of impurities, or breathing menthol under blankets, along with other attempts to improve the air and ease the lungs – but all of it mostly ineffective to quiet down the extreme policing activity happening inside me. The skin attack was called eczema, a skin condition blamed on not enough oil glands, and the lung attack was called asthma and attributed to allergies, so, as a little child, missing school a lot, I wheezed and scratched and read a lot of books. I also stopped growing for several years because of the worthless diets the doctor put me on for a myriad of probably mythical “allergies.”
But the really terrifying pandemic in those days was Poliomyelitis, a devastating, highly infectious disease that attacked the central nervous system and particularly the spinal cord mainly of children and young adults, leaving those it did not kill maimed for life with twisted limbs or worse, paralyzed in an iron lung, a machine where only the head of the victim was exposed for 23 of 24 hours each day. Life Magazine would run pictures of children in iron lungs and all us tots were filled with morbid dread. I, the little kid for weeks on end unable to leave the house and in contact with no one but my family, was spared that horror.
Eventually, with God’s grace, like everything else, it passed. I think the main thing that happened is that God’s beneficence gave the intelligence and the grace and the tools to spare us so that Jonas Salk and his colleagues could produce a working vaccine to protect us and the generations that have come since, to our lasting gratitude.
Finally, in my case, my mom and the doctor in a classic miscommunication managed to pock-mark my face from a Chicken Pox epidemic, after which my folks stopped taking me to seek his medical help for several years. I just waited it out. The asthma lessened with age. The pock marks faded away slowly over the decades. The eczema I still have and a short bout of skin lupus a few years ago reminded me my immune system is still on the alert to attack me in lieu of the absent measles whenever I appear to it to be sick.
Today, every one of these diseases that plagued the children of my era now has a vaccine to protect our youth and a concentrated effort is being made around the world to do the same for all of us with COVID-19. My bio-tech employed neighbor tells me (from a social distance) that doctors, studying the genome of this protein virus, have identified to which proteins in our body it is attracted, and, at this writing, are already trying extant medicines to see if they can kill it.
But dealing with the onset of this disease is only the first step. Coronavirus is thought to damage lungs permanently and may leave behind Chronic lung disease and other conditions. One who contracts it may always have to live on the alert.
In my case, such a residual problem kicked in decades later when Crohn’s disease, a late chronic auto immune reaction, set in to my body during a tough ministry I was doing in 1972 in Philadelphia – in a neighborhood, frightened not from plague this time, but a different kind of pandemic: prejudice.
I had just graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, had a shoe-string job as a college chaplain lined up, where I would be earning a mere $350 a month upcoming in the fall, and I wanted to get married. The Presbytery of Philadelphia had summer internships for $300 a month, $900 for the summer, and I figured: Wow. I can get a little more seasoning in ministry and earn a nest egg so Aίda and I could have a little starting boost, since she was still finishing her degree in the summer and would have to look for a call when she finished.
That was the summer that really changed my life.
I had done tough ministries before. Two summers earlier I had worked next to the burned-out streets of Newark, trying to help a church relate to the neighborhood after riots tore up the city and left everyone in shock. Mainly, we went door to door to the houses still standing, recruiting little kids for a daily vacation Bible school program. That was our in and the way we could meet their parents. One night we went bowling with some faithful young black men from the church and on the way drove into the immediate results of a knife fight with a stabbing victim staggering out of a house and falling down before us in the middle of the street. We piled out of the van, threw the victim into the back, started running through red lights, blowing the horn, picked up a police cruiser, who simply pulled alongside and asked, “What’s up?” and then provided us an escort, leading us to the nearest hospital. All the while we were doing this kind of street work, the pastor was hiding in the locked manse, keeping the window shades all at the same level as a witness to the neighborhood of neatness next to godliness. Seriously!
Sadly, after we finished and handed the ministry over to him, the pastor continued to hide in his house and did not follow up with these children and their parents.
But the Newark ministry turned out to be nothing in terms of trouble compared to what I experienced in Philadelphia in the summer of 1972. I had gone to school at Conwell School of Theology at Broad Street and Girard Avenue in Philadelphia and lived just off Girard in a peaceful neighborhood near the art museum just over Center City in the lower reaches of North Philly and it was a wonderful experience. I loved Philadelphia and looked forward to returning to this art-filled city. But the neighborhood the presbytery put me in was another matter entirely. It was a beautiful area of West Philadelphia that had been traumatized by a gang calling itself “The Breed,” holed up directly across the street from the church where I was assigned. A month before, we soon learned, the gang had stomped a teenager to death, so some were in jail and some momentarily lying low.
Nobody in that neighborhood was out on the empty streets. Everybody was hiding in their houses. A little like today, only more so, and as it turned out, for an even more endemic reason than a renegade gang.
I was hired to co-lead a team of college kids to visit the neighborhood, but only one of them showed up and he had no interest in visiting the neighborhood, being convinced the world was ending shortly and so he was off to Campus Crusade’s EXPLO ’72 (where, in retrospect, I wish I had gone…) As for the rest of the “team,” apparently, the parents would not allow them to participate because of fear. Only my co-leader, a young Messianic Jewish student named Herb from Westminster Seminary, came. He and I were assigned the work of the entire team, as the new pastor of the church, freshly retired from the military chaplaincy, heaped the whole job of the whole team on the two of us.
He snapped out the plan to us: The problem? Racial estrangement. The solution: Step 1: go block to block, house to house and interview the neighbors. Step 2: Find a home in the center of each block willing to hold a meeting. Step 3: Bring the neighbors together. Step 4: Mobilize the block to solve some social problem (his example, garbage wasn’t being picked up; we contact the city and fix it). Step 5: Once we’ve solved the problem, turn the meeting into a Bible study. Step 6: Lead everybody to the Lord. Step 7: get them into his church. That was the plan.
Well, okay. I’d done door to door already in Newark and I knew one thing clearly. Nobody was going to open up a door to two young empty-handed guys with nothing concrete to offer. So, we filched a bunch of camp scholarships forms off the church information table and used those as our lead-in, offering the parents free camp trips for their children. The pastor, noticing the announcements were depleting, was furious when he found out we were spreading them around to all and sundry, growling those were only for church children, but the damage was done.
As a result, people welcomed us in their homes, thinking it was a wonderful thing the church was doing for them. Here’s what we found:
1.On one end of the block, the whites told us: this used to be such a nice neighborhood, but, since these blacks moved in from Center City, we’re afraid to let our children out.
2) On the other end of the block, the new black neighbors told us: We saved up our money and moved out here to West Philly for our children’s safety. But the way these whites glare at us, we’re afraid for our children’s safety. We can’t let them out in the neighborhood, but we can’t afford to move again.
3)So, the two of us would say: We were just down the street talking to your neighbors, and they’re afraid too. If we could find a place on the block where you could meet your neighbors and talk this over, would you come? Everyone said yes. And, on our 1st block, the one the church was on, in the center of the block, we found a young black professional who had refurbished his home with a sunken living room with plenty of space. He loved our idea and offered us his beautifully designed house as a meeting place.
4)Next, we came across a home that had had a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bible Study. The JWs had become too terrified to come back and the people were disappointed, so we offered to take over the Bible study and teach them accurately. The family was delighted.
We couldn’t wait until that night to tell the pastor. He was not enthused. “You’ve got to stick to the plan,” he grumbled at us. Oh, oh. We had skipped steps 3 and 4.
Well, I never saw the end of that ministry. I was done in by the complications: 1)The church had been giving me $6 a week for food, but when the pastor learned about the $300 a month from the presbytery, he cut out my 6 bucks. He had other expenses more important than feeding his workers. I was hungry.
2) The pastor, who never once went out on the street with us, had fortified the church with a hurricane fence topped with barbed wire to protect its perimeter, its parking lot patrolled by two vicious guard dogs. Maybe he didn’t have any money to spare because the dogs, who were busy all day terrorizing any neighbor who dared pass by on all four sides, worked up big appetites and ate a lot.
3) The pastor’s church office was set up like a command post. At dawn, he would march into the Sunday school room where Herb and I slept on cots, bark at us to wake up, get us out on the street and then let the dogs loose until 9:00 p.m. at night. So these were at least 12 hour days of ministry where we had to fend for ourselves because the dogs would charge us when we approached the locked gate. I also had no key. I was stressed.
4) Each weekend I took the subways across Philly and then the train to New Jersey, so on Saturdays I could see Aίda and help her research a class she was creating for the YWCA on available social programs for Hispanics. On Sundays, I was still serving as a kind of student assistant minister at our home church in Dunellen, N.J., then back to Philly for the week.
I was losing weight, exhausted, starting to cough. The pastor in Philly began to stay away in case it was catching, and poor Herb, my ministry partner, bought some Vick’s cough syrup to help my so-called “cold.” Then I started to bleed internally. I had no idea what was happening to me: that I had become so depleted that my immune system had been triggered and it was on the attack once again. I called up my supervisor and said, “Get me out of here.” I had him take me to Princeton, where Aίda found a house-sitting friend who let me stay at an absent professor’s house. I went in to Princeton Hospital and my life changed.
Back in Philadelphia, the pastor assigned poor Herb the final details of the plan: invite everyone with whom we were working to have a big day of celebration in the church parking lot. He’d lock up the dogs for the day, open up the gates, food would be prepared by the church people, who would meet the neighbors on their turf, and church attendance would swell.
Of course, the kids from the church had never joined us and the pastor had neither gone out himself nor brought any elder, deacon, lay leader, Sunday School teacher or any church folks out on the street with us to meet these neighbors. Instead, he blanketed the congregation with announcements and fliers. As I’ve matured, I realize I should have urged the pastor to come out with us, but our communication was unilaterally hierarchical. Our job was to report our progress. We were not encouraged to dialogue with him.
Herb reported to me later that on the big day few if anybody from the church showed up. The leaders from the neighborhood were furious and soon stormed out of the empty parking lot. Shortly afterwards, the pastor left the church and the pastoral ministry. The church was left more estranged from its neighbors and worse off than it had been before.
What happened? I realized that this was a ministry done without love. At its heart, neither the pastor nor the church really cared about the neighborhood. Instead, everyone – black neighbors, white neighbors, pastor, and parishioners (many of whom had moved from the neighborhood and now drove in from the outside) – were all in terror.
*But 1 John 4:18 assures us: Perfect love casts out fear. Clearly, in this case, perfect love had not been allowed to cast out fear.
Thinking about all this, I’ve come to realize that Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13 lays the foundational basis of all ministry. Everything we do in the name of the Lord has to be motivated and done with love. These ministries failed to propagate because love was cast out by fear. All the plans and strategies of all the experts in church growth are worthless if they are not fueled by love. That car won’t move. Lack of love is a terminal illness. A disease like COVID-19 can damage and kill the body, but a malady like lack of love can still the soul and kill the spirit.
What should we all have done? Before we ever stepped out in the neighborhood, we should have brought together the elders and deacons and active lay leaders of the church and done a week or at least a retreat of prayer-soaked Bible study on 1 Corinthians 13, backed up by sermons and plans for all-church forays to spread that spirit of God’s love into the neighborhood. And then we should have gone out together, pastor, people, and us workers.
What should we have studied with them? 1 Corinthians 13. So, if you have your Bible handy, you might want to turn to 1 Corinthians 13, starting with verse 1. I will give you Aida’s and my literal translation from the original Greek and you can compare it with the translation you have in your Bible:
1)“If in the tongues of humans I speak and of angels, but love I do not have, I have become a ringing bronze gong, or a cymbal clashing” (this last is an onomatopoeic word where the sound is like the referent: kum-ba-lon!) THIS MEANS:
Mellifluous communicators who have the gift of gab or can speak beautifully like angels but have no love are just a loud noise that communicates nothing.
2)“And, if I have prophecy and I know all mysteries, and say all knowledge and, if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but love I do not have, nothing I am.” THIS MEANS:
If I have discovered secret knowledge, the inside word that I claim I’m getting directly from the BOSS [and we don’t mean Bruce Springsteen], but there’s no love behind it, even if I can cause a big sensation, I am zero – ¡nada!
3)“And, if I will give away all the things belonging to me and if I might hand over [or deliver] my body in order that I might boast, but love I do not have, I myself benefit nothing.” IN OTHER WORDS:
If I am generous to a fault, even starving myself (like a guy we had at Pilgrim Church years ago who used to “fast” until our minister of evangelism, the Rev. Paul Bricker, put him in the hospital because he was starving himself to the point of danger in the name of piety), no action that is not truly love-driven, no matter how pious we think it makes us look, is anything other than a fault.
Okay, we’re baffled. If all these impressive pious actions are not an end in themselves and are not love-motivated, then what is love???
Paul must have been anticipating this response, for now he gives us a description: love is known by its actions.
4) “Love is long-suffering, love is kind, not jealous, not boastful, not puffed up [or proud],” THIS MEANS:
Love is not controlling like the obsessive husband who put a tracer on his wife’s cell phone to check every place she went and then grilled her on all her whereabouts until she fled to the safety of our police department’s chief dispatcher’s home. Love also does not boast about its accomplishments. As Proverbs 25:27 warns, eating too much honey is bad, as is going around all the time promoting all the good things we’ve done. Instead, we should be sharing promotion as Paul explained in the previous chapter, 1 Corinthians 12: 26, rejoicing together whenever any of us is honored (see also Prov. 27:2).
5) “Not behaving disgracefully [or dishonorably], not seeking its own, not irritable, does not count up evil.”
Disgraceful is the notorious report of church people away at conferences, punching up porn movies in their hotel rooms, scandalizing the staff who prepare their bills and see those charges on them. Or the megachurch assistant pastor who was recently charged by victimized women, encouraged by the Me Too Movement, with decades of assaulting them wherever the church had not installed a security camera. Seven evangelical church leaders we have known in our area here have fallen into sexual sin: six had affairs and one was arrested as a peeping Tom! How the 3 parts of this verse fit together is that they are all about self-centeredness, all about me and what I want: So what ends up in using people includes being irritated when we don’t get our way, which is a way of controlling others, keeping a mental record of perceived slights so we can pay them back, and other such failings that end in fertilizing the root of bitterness we are not supposed to cultivate according to Hebrews 12:15.
Being me-centered in a different way, I think, is also why both these specific Newark and Philadelphia ministries I mentioned failed to flourish after we workers handed them over, when other ministries we established and handed on have continued to thrive. Both pastors and churches had become consumed by their own fears. In Philly the pastor had put his own plan in front of the prompting of the Holy Spirit and the desires of the neighborhood. He wanted their bodies in church. They wanted Bible Study, which he could have led, and bonding up with Christian people, not just rote church attendance. Also, they didn’t need help with garbage collection. The neighborhood was neat and clean (except, of course, for the dog droppings in the church parking lot).
6) “[Love] does not rejoice upon unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth.”
As you’ve no doubt heard, righteousness and justice are the same word in Greek. Justice is brought about by truth. Love loves righteousness. And love loves truth. It hates seeing people victimized and it hates when abuse is simply covered up.
7) “Everything [love] overcomes, everything it believes, everything it hopes, everything it endures [it perseveres].”
You see, love is in relationships for the long run. This means it puts up with a lot of stuff, persevering for a higher reason. It is working for transformation and reconciliation with enduring faith and hope.
8) “Love never falls [or fails], but whether gifts of prophecy, they will be wiped out, if tongues, they will cease themselves, if knowledge, it will be wiped out.”
In the eschaton, that is, at the end of time, all these means of information and all our speculations will be ended. We will be with the source of all knowledge. We won’t need revelation or a special prayer language: we will know. Why? Because of God’s enduring love.
9) “For from a part we know and from a part we prophesy.”
Because our knowledge is limited, we are only on a need-to-know basis. Then we won’t need to know. We will know!
10) “But when perfection may come, what is from [or out of] the part, will be wiped out.”
As perfect love wipes out fear, perfect love will wipe away partial knowledge. In heaven we will be mature in our knowledge.
11) “When I was an infant, I spoke as an infant, I thought as an infant, I reasoned as an infant. When I became a man, I have wiped out the things of an infant.”
Now Paul gives an example from his own maturing. I’ll cite one of my mom’s favorite memories from my sister’s early childhood. My precious compassionate little sister had heard the fire trucks and was told they were “firemen” and she was scandalized: “those mean old firemen,” she complained, “going around making fires and burning everything up!” So, she was given a big picture book about fire fighters so her thinking could mature. I inherited that book and learned early to have a high regard for fire fighters. As we mature, this kind of compassion should be permeating all our developing thought. The mature Christian emphasizes loving. Ultimately, only love not reason will take us to God. Our connection to Jesus is not simply through knowledge; it is God’s compassionate love that gives us true knowledge of salvation and helps us mature in wisdom.
12) “For we see now through a mirror in a riddle [or enigma], but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know for myself [or clearly], just as also I was known” [that being a past tense].
Ancient mirrors were polished bronze. You could see your reflection in color, but it was vague – like a riddle or an enigma. But, when we are perfected, we will know clearly, as God has always known us exactly. So, this passage is comforting. We don’t know all the answers. We’re still infants in our knowledge. But God knows everything about us and still loves us and helps us mature. That maturing is called sanctification.
13) “But now remains faith, hope, love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”
Now we believe, and we hope, and we love and the last is the greatest. When we see God face to face, we won’t need faith, only obedience and gratitude. And we won’t need hope, we will have complete assurance. But we will always have love, because we will be eternally in a perfect relationship of love with God and each other.
So, what can we learn from all this?
Right now, we’re locked down. We can’t do too much. But we can do something by telephone, and letter, and email, and Linked-in, and phone, and Zoom meetings (if you have it), and Facebook (if you can brave the harvesting), and shouted conversations (at a social distance) with neighbors.
From our store-front Beverly, MA Pilgrim church, every week Pastor Valerie’s been in touch by email and for several weeks a different elder has called us: Catherine, Genny, Joe. The Hamilton, MA contingent, Christine and Aίda and I have been getting together in our face masks for Bible Study. Elaine, a deacon, and several other Pilgrim people have sent out messages of encouragement to all of us. We have personally received Easter cards and Chris and Aίda and I have sent out Easter cards to our “shut-ins.” Pastor Bob keeps the Sunday service up and working on Zoom and the Sunday School and a small group and a weekly prayer meeting are on line. And we all have been praying regularly for each other. This kind of fellowship is one manner in which God’s love spreads. All these are simple ways we can be loving in lockdown mode (especially if we have physical conditions that pit us at higher risk so we have to stay mainly indoors). We can still be caring about each other and encouraging each other to persevere, and holding each other up in prayer, as well as praying for the safety of all those we know in the medical field who are working in different ways to halt the virus for all of us.
So, here are my words of encouragement: let’s hang in there together, sharing and holding on to God’s love, which is the only thing that is truly enduring. It is finally our central message and the only thing on which any of us can absolutely rely.