The Panic of Pandemic and the Peace that Passes all Understanding

The world is out of control right now. Thousands of deaths, uncounted infections, countries closing borders, travel bans, quarantine, economic downturn, runs on grocery stores. Some of the world’s most treasured cities look like ghost towns. “Coronavirus refugee” has entered our vocabulary as people caught traveling can’t return home, or those who have the means flee their homes willingly. Schools and religious institutions shut their doors or find creative ways to meet.

For the first time in living memory, our world faces a truly global pandemic.

It’s interesting to consider what “plague” has looked like in different eras of history. All of the sudden our minds are thrown back to the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, and other diseases without name or medical diagnosis that have shaken our civilizations. We remember stories of Christians tending the sick at risk of their own health. We call up dark images like the plague doctors in their beaked masks and compare them to the yellow hazmat suits and breathing masks of our modern imagination. We consider the suspicion neighbors and friends must have harbored toward one another as soon as a black cross was spotted on someone’s door, and we compare it to the sideways glances we see when someone coughs too loudly.

These human experiences are not unique to our generation and Coronavirus. Plague, pestilence, pandemics… they always conjure up panic and suspicion like some sort of black magic. They make us suspect even the air we breathed freely only the day before.

Pandemics pull back the curtain and expose humanity for what we really are, and what we find there can be both vile and hopeful—at once uplifting and depressing. We see the ugly faces of poverty and brokenness and all the harm they cause in our communities. But we also see the good neighbors who bring groceries to vulnerable community members. We see panic and greed at their worst, but we also see altruism shining like a light in the darkness. Widespread diseases shake our illusion of control and remind us how small we are in this universe after all. They deeply unsettle us, destroy our routines, and cause us to question unshakable assumptions about our safety, health, and security. But in trying times we are further exposed as the creatures we are, made in the image of God. We see sacrificial care, unconditional love, creative ingenuity, and unwavering compassion. These qualities can only come from a good Creator and his reflection in us.

Watching the Coronavirus pandemic unfold from my home here in Uganda has felt at times like an out-of-body experience. Our country as yet has no documented cases. But border security is tightening. Many travelers from infected countries are quarantined upon entry. People change their cultural habits to better protect themselves, their families, and neighbors at high risk of contracting the virus. The many cultures surrounding me that deeply value formal greetings have adjusted to elbow or fist bump greetings instead of the traditional handshakes. Hand washing stations—even ones as simple as a bucket with a tap—have popped up outside of markets and businesses. People gather in smaller groups to minimize social interaction.

But some things have not changed. Some aspects of life carry on unaffected. Our Sudanese brothers and sisters pray every Sunday in every church for three things: peace, the Church, and the sick. Many of them are refugees, and even the ones who aren’t still live in a culture with much fewer illusions about controlling illness and death or powerful governments. This Sunday I stood with bowed head, listening to the smooth Arabic words tumbling on as we prayed. When we prayed for peace, we asked the Lord to bring peace to warring countries, and to protect innocent people in volatile areas. when we prayed for the Church, we asked God to strengthen our brothers and sisters in areas where they can’t meet because of the virus, and for our Father to shine light and hope through us to the hurting world around us. And as we prayed for the sick, we asked the Lord, like always, to have mercy on those with malaria, with typhoid, with diabetes and malnutrition. Nothing else changed except we calmly added coronavirus to the list. The faith of refugees—in a God who withstands war and disease and famine and drought unchanged—cannot be shaken by any sickness, however new or unknown it may be.

Other things remain the same too. We keep our jugs, jerry cans, and tanks full of water, because dry season or collapsing infrastructure could both stop our water just the same. We live largely non-electrified lives, and the simplicity saves us the stress of wondering when the power will be cut or worrying about charging appliances and devices that don’t add much value to our lives in the long run. We keep basic medications in our house and live on simple medical know-how already because good doctors are hours away, coronavirus or no.

But some things have changed. The president of the country just asked for a month of precautionary measures: meet in small groups, close schools, worship in homes instead of churches, don’t hang around in markets more than necessary. New border regulations have stranded teammates out of country. Expat friends working with different organizations can be here one day and gone the next because their passport country demanded them back home, or their employer ended their contract, or all foreign personnel are evacuated as a precaution.

Most recently I got an email from my company asking me to consider the future. IF the virus comes, and IF I contract it, what scenarios am I comfortable resigning myself to? If medical evacuation isn’t an option and in-country medical care can’t meet my needs, am I content to stay with that knowledge? Would I prefer to relocate to an undesignated location with better health care for an unspecified amount of time? Those emails made the virus on its global stage suddenly very personal and immediate. I was forced to consider what measures I would take and plans I would make. I had to consider the what-ifs of the virus making it into Uganda. I considered what good I could do if I chose to stay or go. I considered my refugee friends who are immunocompromised and have no option of evacuating to save themselves or their loved ones.

In the end, my decision was to stay. It was a decision knowing I stayed with empty hands and not much to offer my neighbors and friends if or when the virus does come. It was a decision to stay and commit to quarantine or sickness, to limiting my social interaction and ministry, to grief and lament, to solitude and solidarity, whatever may come.

As I prayed through that decision I played and sang through precious words of faith from my hymnal, words like, “His word shall not fail you — He promised / Believe him and all will be well / Then go to a world that is dying / His perfect salvation to tell!” and “Whenever clouds arise / when songs give place to sighing / and hope within me dies / I draw the closer to him / from care he sets me free / his eye is on the sparrow / And I know he watches me.” I found peace and comfort in the Lord’s presence and in obedience to him founded on faith in his unchanging character. My imperfect faith in a perfect God is the only thing that can bring my heart to sing in worship, “Oh when I come to die, / Oh when I come to die / Oh when I come to die / give me Jesus. / Give me Jesus, / Give me Jesus! / You may have all this world, / Give me Jesus.”

But these words of worship come from a faith founded in an immovable God. He is not surprised by any virus or pandemic we may experience, and the death, the sorrow, and the fear that come with it do not take away one iota of his love and compassion for us. He is still the God that heard King David’s cry for mercy and stopped the Israelite plague at the threshing floor of Araunah (1 Samuel 24). He is still the God that passed over Israelite homes and showed his unmerited mercy by sparing their firstborn children. He is still the God who stopped a plague in the Israelite camp when he was worshipped between the living and the dead (Numbers 16).

He is still the God of Habakkuk: “His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden. Plague went before him; pestilence followed his steps. He stood, and shook the earth; he looked, and made the nations tremble.” And we can answer both the blessings and the trials God brings with Habakkuk, “Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

He is the same God who has led his people through the plagues of history, and we follow him still through this one. He passed over the Israelites and spared their firstborn. He offered himself as the perfect passover lamb to keep at bay the plagues of sin and death we fully deserve. As we come to Easter may we remember that sacrifice in a new light. And as we contemplate an Easter and Holy week shared only from our homes and separated from our church families, may we remember the small band of disciples who met together in an upstairs room. They were small in number because of persecution instead of plague, but their fear was the same. And Jesus’ answer to them just as well answers us: “‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” In these uncertain and fearful times, we carry in us the Spirit of God himself to comfort and to calm, and to propel us out into a world in need of the hope we share.