Let’s start with the good news: the White House announced yesterday that the US plans to end the coronavirus public health emergency on May 11. According to the New York Times, this is “a sign that federal officials believe the pandemic has moved into a new, less dire phase.”
Now to the bad news: A report released yesterday by the world’s largest humanitarian network states that the world remains “dangerously unprepared” for the next pandemic, which could be “just around the corner.” The World Health Organization is currently monitoring nine “priority diseases” that pose the greatest public health risk. One of them is labeled “Disease X,” acknowledging that “a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease.”
I found this news disconcerting but personally less relevant since there is nothing I can do about “Disease X” or any other pathogen. However, this headline also caught my eye: “Tens of Thousands of Americans May Have This Deadly Disease—and Not Even Know It.” I quickly read the story to discover the nature of this “deadly disease” and whether I might have it.
And I saw an online life expectancy calculator in today’s news and immediately took it myself.
Why I changed my sermon last Sunday
The brevity and uncertainty of life is on my mind and heart today because of something that happened two days ago at the Chapel where I speak on Sundays.
I was about to begin my message when our executive pastor told us that someone was in need of special prayer. It turned out, a couple in the service had received word that their thirty-six-year-old son had just died. He left three small children.
We gathered around the couple to pray for them and to grieve and weep with them. After they left to be with their family, I changed my message to a conversation about trusting God with our worst fears and grief.
We began by acknowledging the shock we all felt. Children are supposed to bury their parents—parents are not supposed to bury their children. This is every parent’s worst nightmare and greatest fear.
It’s something we think could never happen to us, until it does.
Filtering the world through two prisms
This is how many people approach the subject of death itself.
I was troubled about VEXAS, the “deadly disease” in the news, until I learned that I don’t have its symptoms. But I’m choosing to ignore the pandemic which could be “just around the corner” since there is nothing I can do personally to prevent it.
I think most of us respond to such threats in a similar fashion. We filter them through two prisms: Do they affect us personally? If so, is there anything we can do about them personally? If the answer to both questions is not yes, we find something else to think about.
This is because most Americans are pragmatists, measuring truth by what works for us. In fact, the philosophical school called “pragmatism” (from the Greek pragma, “action”) originated in the US and has been deeply influential on our culture.
Some pragmatic philosophers even believe that “a claim is true if and only if it is useful.” Since the story about the next pandemic is not useful to most of us, we feel free to ignore it if we wish.
You and I are not Jesus
The biblical worldview is far different.
In God’s eyes, every person is valuable as a bearer of his image (Genesis 1:27), someone for whom Christ chose to die (Romans 5:8). As a result, I should be concerned for those who have VEXAS whether I have the syndrome or not. And I should be troubled about the global consequences of the next pandemic whether I can prevent it or not.
The good news is that our Savior feels everything we feel, whether others empathize with us or not. In fact, he “loves each of us as if there were only one of us,” as St. Augustine said.
Now he wants to do the same through his church, the “body of Christ,” as we continue his earthly ministry today (1 Corinthians 12:27). However, you and I are not Jesus. We cannot feel as deeply as he feels for even one person, much less everyone in the news and in our lives.
But if we will ask, he will direct us to a hurting person we are to help in his name. He will give us his heart for this person until we “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) and incarnate his grace in our compassion.
I believe he has such a person for each of us to love today. Will you ask him for yours?
The gospel on five fingers
Here’s the rest of the story: as we share Christ’s presence with hurting people, we experience Christ’s presence more deeply in our souls.
When people asked Mother Teresa why she loved the poor so much, she would point them to Jesus’ statement, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). But she did so in a very personal fashion: she took their hand and slowly wiggled one finger at a time as she said, “You-did-it-to-me.”
What will you do to Jesus today?