Will Scott: Church in the time of coronavirus

Will Scott

We’ve been through this before.

About 15 years ago I remember visiting a small town called Grand Junction, Tennessee. The town came into being right before the Civil War, and must have had high hopes with such a name. But it never really took off and now has about 300 residents. We were on our way out of Memphis toward the national military park at Shiloh which is the only way we would have gotten to Grand Junction.

But it just happens to be the place where my grandfather’s family was from, and where he spent childhood summers on his uncle’s farm. We drove through part of town and there wasn’t much open, or anything to see. But my father had been there before and knew where the cemetery was. The cemetery was historic and had the look of being a bit neglected. The August sun had dried up the grass and kept it short, better than any lawnmower could.

The place wasn’t very large and so we found the Scotts without too much trouble. Gravestones contained family relationships and bits of Scripture. There were familiar names that still appear in our family tree. The dates on the graves stretched back. Some lived to a ripe old age. Some died young. But two years in particular seemed to be bad for the family. One, in 1878, when several died in an outbreak of yellow fever. And again in 1918 as so many died from the Spanish flu, which spread around the globe at the end of World War I and travelled all the way to Grand Junction, Tennessee. You see, we’ve been through all of this before — and the history is closer than we think.

The church where I worked as seminary intern boasted of never being closed. It took two feet of snow falling on a Friday night to close church for Sunday. The last cancellation had been for the 1918 flu.

Our church in Dalton, too, is no stranger to interruption. Our ancestors in the faith had to miss Sunday worship a few times during the Civil War as Dalton changed hands and the church building was converted into a field hospital. The elders of the church, knowing that it was at risk of being confiscated and melted into a cannon, hid the church bell.

Stories like these remind us who we are. It’s not that we’re immune to hardship. No one is. But even we who have suffered less carry the memory of hardship with us because we have the witness of prophets, martyrs, apostles and saints who have done this all before.

In an essay oft-quoted these past weeks, C.S. Lewis once wondered: “How are we to live in an atomic age?”

Mid-century, as many remember firsthand, people lived with the threat of nuclear annihilation. How to live in the valley of the shadow of death?

Lewis supplies the answer: “Why, as you would have lived in the 16th century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

We do our best to hide the reality of death in the isolation of grief and in the quiet, mechanical hum of the hospital room. But this is an illusion. Therefore, says Lewis, when the inevitable comes, it should “find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts.”

Let me be clear. This does not mean we shouldn’t change our habits to avoid illness. We should avoid each other so as not to spread disease, limiting the burden on our health care resources so those who most need them can find the treatment they need. That sounds something like, “love your neighbor as yourself."

The Apostle Paul, too, reminds one of his churches that they are one body: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” Our isolation, then, is a sign of our solidarity. It increases the chance that we’ll worship together again, just as our ancestors did after the plague the last century.

The question for a church or a believer then, isn’t how to grapple with something totally new; it’s how to live in the valley of the shadow of death doing sensible things like feeding, working, praying and worshipping, even while apart.

Our faith isn’t contingent on whether we celebrate Easter in church. We show our faith by the way we live in sight of the cross — because we’ve been there before.

Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.

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