A Few of My Pre-Pandemic Favorite Things

Huntington Park

Huntington Park, one of my favorite things. © Robert C Trube

I suspect most of us have had wistful memories of all the things we didn’t give a second thought of doing pre-pandemic. Perhaps this helps explain the urgency with which some people have tried to resume life as if nothing happened, as if there is not still a risk of infection. Being at an age of being at increased risk, and some health history in our household that further enhances that risk, we’ve resigned ourselves to what looks like six to twelve more months much like the last three. We are utilizing warm weather for some visits with friends outdoors at social distances, plein air painting, walks, and visits with neighbors.

These are a few of the favorite pre-pandemic things I miss:

  • Hugging family who don’t live in our house.
  • The Asian buffet near our home.
  • Leisurely browsing in my local bookstore.
  • Going to the grocery store together.
  • Going to a grocery store at any time, not “senior hours.”
  • Singing with Capriccio in rehearsals and concerts. It is not only the music but the friends and the laughter.
  • Coffee with a friend in a crowded Starbucks.
  • An adult beverage with a work team.
  • Actually meeting with a work team without a computer screen between us.
  • Celebrating a special occasion with a dinner out.
  • Selling the books I’ve read at Half Price books (the stack is growing).
  • Going to a Columbus Clippers game at Huntington Park.
  • Singing with Paul, Jeff, Jayne, Diane, and Tracy in our small acapella ensemble at church.
  • Going to concerts or lectures or any event with a lot of other people.
  • Seeing another’s smile and being glad I do.

I’ve not missed travel–congested roads, airports, crowded planes. I don’t look forward to going back to these. A number of the things I’ve listed above we technically could do. But from what we know, we can’t afford to get sick if we can avoid it. So we won’t do these things until infection rates are very low or there is a vaccine that works. As much as I miss these favorite things, we still have a life we love. We still have fellowship with friends and family. I can brew a pretty good cup of coffee. I can walk in my neighborhood. We can go out painting together. We talk to more neighbors than ever. I think the teams I work with have done amazing things during this time. I’ve enjoyed many good books, listened to some great music on vinyl and CD. We’ve made some good meals together and enjoyed good take out. We treasure our church’s worship times, even if online.

I’m not willing to exchange our lives for a favorite thing. I realize there are no sure things. While I do not fear death, I won’t throw away life needlessly. But I still have favorite things I miss. What are yours?

Pandemic Musings

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When will we be together like this again? Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

A number of friends have been keeping pandemic journals. I have not but have been reflecting on this time. It is so often the case that we move out of one season of our lives into another without thinking of how we have been formed by that time. We don’t ask what the time has asked of us. We want to move on, to get back to normal.

Only I don’t think “normal” will be what we knew before February-March of 2020 when the pandemic hit. Here are the things I’ve been musing about. There are some conclusions and a lot of questions.

One conclusion: hug the ones you love whenever you see them because, if they don’t live in your house, you may not know when you’ll get to hug them again.

I recognize that many have gone through great hardship of lost jobs, or braving exposure to the disease as first responders, health care workers, or “essential workers,” or those who are trying to work two jobs and care for and educate children all in the same living space. I’ve been quite fortunate and have no grounds to complain. I can work at home and have been quite occupied, we’ve had enough food (perhaps more than enough), and had many opportunities to stay connected with family and friends. Given my age, my chief job has been to stay healthy and out of the hospital, saving the beds and equipment for others. It has challenged me to think afresh of how we use the blessings we enjoy for the sake of others, whether favorite bookstores or struggling charities or those experiencing greater isolation than we are. That is something well worth carrying out of this time. Such situations won’t go away.

I’ve watched the war between “we’re in this together” and “you can’t take away my rights.” It strikes me that we do best when we determine to protect each other’s rights, which guards rights and seeks the common good. I find myself far more drawn to the people who are looking out for the rights of others, to health, to safety, to productive work, than those “fighting for their rights.” I think I want to be more like the former than the latter. Now and later.

I’ve noticed how on edge and brittle we all are. Maybe its too much time looking at all the back and forth on social media and in the news, all the sifting of fake posts from accurate reporting. Add to that the gruesome stories of ICU’s full of sick patients. Add video of violence against the body of a black man where millions can witness his life ebbing away, and more back and forth about protests. Actually, we’ve been like that for a while. The past months have only intensified our condition. I can’t help but wonder if the screens through which so much of this is mediated has us all on collective overload. I sometimes set my phone aside for hours, which usually are the best hours of the day. Maybe this is the season to really work on the media hygiene that allows me to have a life, and some sanity, and perspective.

I’ve wondered about an economy that in retrospect appears to be a house of cards that tumbles when we have to stay at home except for groceries…and hardware…and essential services…and restaurant take out…and online vendors. I realize that there is a discussion to be had (not here, please) about whether we needed lockdowns to address the pandemic. I prefer not to add my voice to all the online experts who know best what we should have done. I worry about those who live paycheck to paycheck who often are “essential” and yet among those most exposed and vulnerable. I’m troubled by the inequities this season has exposed, inequities that have been there the whole time. State-controlled economies seem another form of tyranny. But growing extremities of wealth and poverty, if not voluntarily addressed could lead to the disruptive forces that end with that kind of tyranny. At very least, it seems that we could figure out how to recognize all the “essential” jobs in our normal economy and ask whether they are being adequately paid.

I’ve also been musing on the data that has shown that our CO2 emissions have been lowered to the levels needed, at least for a few months, to prevent further warming of the planet. I’ve also been struck by the images of cities with clear blue skies above instead of a constant haze. It has been brought home to me what a drastic change is involved to meet our emission goals. We’ve basically had to shut down the planet. What does that tell us about the kind of economy we have built that must redline the planet’s operating limits to flourish? What if we set ourselves to thinking about what we’ve done in these months and ask if there is a way to develop an economy where people can work without pushing the planet’s operating limits? Rather than thinking either/or, might we start looking for both/and solutions?

Through most of history, much of economic life revolved around the home. It did not involve all the commuting, the huge office complexes, the relentless global travel of modern life, nor the kind of entertainment complex of large scale gatherings that are perhaps the hardest to resume in a time of pandemic. I can’t help wondering what could emerge from this messy, stressful, and yet strangely creative time. I, at least want to begin asking if there might be different ways of conceiving of the good life.

At very least, when disease is past, could it mean a renewed community life–and many hugs?

Musings on “Thinking Christianly”

woman looking at sunset

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Yesterday I reviewed a bookTo Think Christianly. In some ways, it is a peculiar phrase, and someone asked about the origins of this language. The question prompted me to muse on the phrase, and the significance it has had for me. At the outset, I need to offer the caveat that I write these reflections as a committed follower of Christ, which you probably already guessed.

  1. The phrase seems most associated with Harry Blamires, author of The Christian Mind: How Should A Christian Think? Blamires was a mentee of C. S. Lewis, once headed an English department, and wrote literary criticism (including a book on James Joyce’s Ulysses), theology, and novels.
  2. When I hear the phrase “thinking Christianly,” it suggests to me the bringing of Christian belief and practice to bear on whatever I am thinking about.
  3. The idea that undergirds “thinking Christianly” was probably best articulated by Abraham Kuyper when he said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
  4. Christ is central both as sovereign and servant. Christian thinking both strives to think and act in all things as Christ would, and yet does so humbly, conscious from whom we learn, and how much we’ve yet to learn.
  5. Thinking Christianly is done in light of the great story we find ourselves a part of–the story of creation and what it means to be human as part of a larger world entrusted to our care, how human rebellion has changed everything and explains “what’s wrong with the world?,” how Christ’s incarnate saving work addresses the human dilemma, and toward what end history is moving.
  6. Thinking Christianly recognizes no difference between sacred and secular, and touches every human endeavor from food production to waste management systems, from microbiology to cosmology.
  7. Thinking Christianly is dynamic rather than static. It is not “Christian thought” etched in stone. It moves forward with ever new questions rather than once and for answers.
  8. Contrary to the popular image of the solitary scholar, thinking Christianly is both individual and communal. Great ideas may emerge in the wilderness but are tested and refined in diverse communities.
  9. Thinking Christianly is thinking. “Thinking” is probably a topic unto itself. At very least, can we agree that thinking is a process of reasoning, moving from premises to conclusions, assessing the arguments that support a proposal, using logic and intuition to understand our world and our place in it? It is not just turning a feeling into an assertion that cannot be questioned, but must be accepted.
  10. It takes work to think Christianly. From ongoing reading of the scriptures, our sourcebook for the great story, to building up a base of understanding about the questions we are considering, to wrestling through the relation between the two, this is not either instant nor easy.

Why does it matter? Thinking Christianly will not lead to a utopian society. We can frame elegant and eloquent ways of thinking about everything from gardening to politics and fail to love God or neighbor. But we will love neither God nor neighbor well without thinking Christianly. If we do not think Christianly, either we will substitute reactions and emotions for thought, or we will allow ways of thinking alien to our deepest commitments to shape our lives. Frankly, it seems that there are a lot of examples of this kind of thing. What saddens me is that none of it honors God or seeks the flourishing of others that is neighbor love. It saddens me that we miss the joy of pursuing the love of God in every human endeavor and settle for so much less. But the flip side is that to think Christianly means that everything we do, and how and why we do it, matters.

We Were Not Ready For This

coronavirus

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We were not ready for this. Literally. None of our bodies were ready for Covid-19, a novel coronavirus to which none of us are immune.

We could discuss whether our respective countries were ready for this. Frankly, that’s a quagmire I’d prefer to avoid. I wonder, given the infectiousness of the virus, its ability to spread before people are symptomatic, and how easily we travel from one point on the globe to another whether this would have been possible to prevent. Don’t want to get in an argument on that one though…

It’s plain that many of us were not ready economically. This exposes the vulnerabilities and inequities in our economic systems in many countries. Many live paycheck to paycheck, or even day to day. Few have the six months of savings financial advisors recommend.

Our supply chains were not ready for the hoarding of toilet paper, or infections to run through a key sector of business, like meat-packing facilities.

We weren’t ready with our health. Some of the vulnerabilities to this disease reflect poor habits of self-care: diet, exercise, tobacco use that make lungs, hearts, and kidneys more vulnerable.

What has struck me most profoundly is that we weren’t ready spiritually.

We have a hard time being home-bound, if we are blessed to have homes or apartments. Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” When stay at home orders or recommendations extend beyond a few weeks, I’ve noticed the increased restlessness, even though people can get out to walk, buy groceries and necessities, take walks or drives, and go to work if required. Why our restlessness of heart, and what does this say of us?

We weren’t ready for a problem that didn’t yield to a quick human solution. We are anxious at what we cannot control. We are impatient at what cannot be set to rights in a manner of weeks. We are frustrated that those in authority have no solution that can restart our economy and keep all of us safe from infection. Many of us avoid thinking that it might take a year or more for this pandemic to be done with us, before we can truly go back to life the way it was, if we ever can go back. What does our anger and rancor reveal when the truth is that we all are faced with something not faced in our lifetimes, something for which we don’t have a roadmap?

We weren’t ready, and I speak particularly as an American, for a world where the “big ME” has to take a back seat to “we’re in this together.” Some are doing some amazing things from the medical personnel and first responders who risk their lives to care for others, to the many people who have stepped up to provide for people in desperate need. But it troubles me in a situation where any of us could be infected without knowing it, that people would refuse to wear a mask to protect others, including those who stock the shelves of their grocery, who fill their prescriptions, or for the elderly who have ventured out to buy their groceries. What is missing in our lives when my personal comfort and convenience ranks above the protection of others who may be vulnerable?

Our online behavior of recent years hasn’t prepared us for this, and I’ve become aware of my own bent inclinations in this regard. I find myself spending far too much time following the back and forth of “exposés” and rebuttals, of debates about where blame is to be placed, of protecting lives, and protecting livelihoods. I find myself angered more than I’d like to admit and depressed, and in my worst moments caught up in this stuff. A wake up call came for me a few days ago when I learned that a former colleague, a dear friend, was seriously ill with Covid-19. I realized how none of this had anything to offer my friend, or me. I was reduced to prayer, to going to “the rock that is higher” to find help for my friend, and to still the anxious concern I had for him. Thanks be to God that as I write it appears that he has turned a corner.

I wasn’t ready for this. These months have laid bare the unseemly and the shallow and the poorly formed in my life. And I suspect this process is not yet finished. The question is will I just give way to such things, or pretend they are not there, even though I catch them lurking in my life in those moments of insight? Will I justify such things, clothing them in talk of my rights or freedoms, or will I confess the ugliness, the unhealthy habits of mind and body, and find help in community with others who share my faith? Will I allow the stillness and solitude to lay bare my heart and heal it? Will I surrender the illusion of control that has been shattered by these events and listen with hope for the bidding of what is within my reach?

None of us were ready for this. I’m not sure there was a way we could have been. Perhaps instead of trying to figure out what we will make of this, the question we might ask is, what will we allow all this to make of us?

 

Opening Up

shallow focus photo of white open sigange

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For many of us, it has been nearly a month since the world shut down and we came under stay at home orders. As I write, I sense growing pressure from, and on, government officials to begin opening up our society. The US leads the world in deaths (over 20 percent of all deaths) from Covid-19 and the infection rates have only flattened and possibly begun to decline. Some claim all this is an over-reaction although the best evidence is that given the contagiousness of the virus, the fact that no one has immunity who has not been infected, and the mortality rates are much higher than seasonal flu, the measures have averted a horrendous catastrophe where lives that could be saved are lost due to lack of hospital capacity.

Some are OK with that. One person I’m friends with on social media claimed it was all a big mistake not to keep society open. I asked him if would be OK to see 50 million infected and at least 1 million die. He was OK with that. This is troubling to me, because while I know death comes to all, this was conceding that far more deaths than are necessary are acceptable to get the economy going.

I wonder, though if that will work. Several years ago, when Ebola had spread to the US, one of the health care providers caring for a patient was diagnosed with Ebola after trying on gowns at a bridal shop. No matter the information that demonstrated that the shop was safe, had been thoroughly sterilized, people would not shop there. They went out of business. When I hear of a restaurant cited for violations or food poisoning, that one gets crossed off my list. Just because things open up, business won’t pick up until people know its safe. And should a business become an infection hot-spot, that could spell then end of that business.

I get that people are hurting. Nearly half of all Americans live paycheck to paycheck, with little or no savings in reserve. Unemployment checks are slow in coming from an overburdened system. “Stimulus” checks are just starting to come, and for many, they are already spent. The social cost to the most vulnerable, including children, could be great. Whole industries potentially could be lost. And these conditions may make people more vulnerable to the virus. State governments have taken some measures to forestall the worst, but for how long?

Like so many things, this discussion tends to get framed in stark either-or terms. We must prevent deaths, or we must protect the economy and jobs in our country. Is that the best we can do? Why must we oppose lives and livelihoods. Might it be possible to value both? As I’ve listened to different sources and what other countries are doing, I wonder if something like the following may be the way we go:

  1. We will keep stay at home orders in place, or something like them at least another month to reduce infection rates to the point where health departments can track, trace, and isolate new infections and where testing can monitor for community spread. We probably should do this anyway because what needs to be in place is not ready.
  2. Extensive testing capacity, including anti-body testing which is still under development needs to be readily available for early detection of new infections and to know who is immune and who is susceptible.
  3. We all need to agree that hygiene, social distancing, and masks become part of our habits until there is a vaccine.
  4. Businesses and workplaces that are “non-essential” should be able to open up as they can demonstrate that sanitation, distancing, and other health department mandated practices are in place that ensure worker and consumer safety. Telework should continue wherever possible. Employers should make modifications and provide personal protective wear needed to ensure worker safety. All sick workers should be able to stay home without reprisal. All workplaces should be subject to these regulations and inspected. Mechanisms should be in place to protect whistle-blowers from reprisals.
  5. Public accommodations such as stores and restaurants should have reduced occupancy limits to ensure safe distancing, as “essential” businesses like groceries have implemented. All these places must be mindful that if an outbreak of infection can be traced to them, this can mean shutdowns, and negligence could bring civil suits.
  6. If there is a “pause” in infections, the time should be used to establish the best treatment protocols and make these universally available to provide the best treatment for those newly infected in a more open situation.
  7. Steps that protect the most at-risk should be maintained and enhanced including dedicated shopping hours, priority access to delivery services, and any other measures that minimize there risk of infection. Some of this will need to be the voluntary choices of these at risk persons, best supported at safe distances by friends and relatives who are not at as great a risk. Addressing the impact of long-term isolation of this population is important.

It seems that bringing any group of people, particularly large groups in close proximity for any length of time risks spread, although there is some indication that masks help. Are crowd size limits at events possible? Is social distancing possible and economically feasible for travel? What about schools and universities?

That is but a beginning. The question of how freely travel occurs between countries and even states, and how this may be screened pose large questions. This pandemic arose so rapidly by combining a highly infectious virus with ubiquitous global travel.

Even vaccines, which seem like the magic wand, must work long enough to snuff out the spread of the virus through vulnerable hosts, requiring a massive campaign for global vaccination. It’s staggering to think about.

Writing this makes clear that the changes in my own life as one in the at-risk population are going to last a long time, at least another year seems likely, assuming we stay healthy. But I do find myself grieving. When will I be able to visit family in person without social distancing, or share a meal outside my own house? When will I get to hang out at a bookstore? When will I sing with my choir? When will I get to go to a baseball game? While parts of America open up in 2020, I have real questions about that for me. It looks to me like 2020 will be The Year of Staying Home.

Memento Mori

I write these words during a week some predict new infections and deaths from COVID-19 may come to a peak in the United States. It is plain that for many this will be a very bad week. For Christians, this is Holy Week, the final week of Lent. For Jews, Passover in 2020 begins on the night on which I which I write.

“Memento mori.” One of the key aspects of Lent is remembering that we will die. During many years, I suspect this only receives passing attention while we go on with our lives. Not this year. This year has smacked us in the face with death. We have watched death tolls rise in country after country, and now in our own. Suddenly a trip to the grocery store feels like running a perilous gantlet.

“Memento mori.” I’m geeky enough to follow statistics. One of the interesting ones I’ve noticed in our state’s statistics is the median age of those who have died. At present, it is 78. What is striking is that 78.6 years is also the average life expectancy in the US. Now there is some difference between median and mean, but it was close enough that it strikes me that the distribution of deaths approximates that in normal life–some die at every age, but the older you are, the more likely you are to die if you contract this disease. Of course the truth is, the older you are, the more likely you are to die, period. The only thing that is different is that because of this disease, more people at all ages are dying at present. For all of us, this is real!

“Memento mori.” C.S. Lewis reminds us in his sermon Learning in War-Time that war does not increase the frequency of death–“100 percent of us die.” Lewis argues that the one distinctive thing about war is that it forces us to remember death. Young soldiers make out wills. How many of us have made out wills and advance directives in this crisis?

“Memento mori.” The practice of remembering that we will die in Lent is not an exercise in fear or hopelessness. It is an honest reckoning, that along with Christ, we must go through Good Friday before there is Easter. Passover, for the Jews remembers another plague, the death of the firstborn throughout Egypt, sparing the Jews only because of the lamb’s blood on their door posts. Good Friday reminds us of “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Death will take us from this life and this world, but it will not take us from God. As death did not hold Jesus, we believe that death will not hold us. Beyond Good Friday is Easter–Resurrection Day. One day, “he (or she) is risen” will be said of all of us who hope in Christ.

“Memento mori.” I do not think we can truly live with joy in each day without coming to terms with our death. To suppress it, to ignore it, to fear it, to obsess over it robs us of the deeper richness of life’s most ordinary joys. I recognize and respect that not all who read this embrace what I believe. What these times confront all of us with is the real possibility of our death, or that of someone we love. It poses, if we will face it, perhaps the most important question of human existence, which is how we will come to terms with our mortality. Remembering that we will die, and determining how that will shape the way we however many years are yet given us may be the great gift of this pandemic.

Stay safe, my dear friends.

Using Online Media During Covid-19

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Staying home, modeling my homemade, no-sew mask. Bob Trube © 2020

Amid sheltering in place during Covid-19, I’ve had to think through my use of online media in this time, in both professional and personal life. I’m still in process, particularly as I observe the various controversies, rumors, information, and dire news reports coming from every country on the planet. I’m sobered by what our first responders and frontline healthcare personnel must face, by news of friends and friends of friends who are fighting infections, and the growing death tolls. In addition to newscasts, much of this information comes over online media. Like most of you, I’m trying to figure out how to walk the line between denial and obsession, of staying informed without being overwhelmed. Here are some thoughts in how I’m thinking about and dealing with this. I’m still figuring it out, and what I say may not fit your situation, so, for what it’s worth, here are a few thoughts:

  1. I’m trying to take steps to limit how much I read online. It’s a real temptation for me. I love to learn about things, which probably accounts for the shelves and shelves and piles of books in my home. I’m learning to take times of the day to check the news, and other times where I put the phone in another room, particularly when I want to give uninterrupted time to work projects or reading. If I don’t, there is always another story, and in time, even though I’m pretty even keel, I get weighed down.
  2. When I read about things that heighten my anxiety, or news about friends getting infected, or facing other struggles, I stop and pray. Often, it is just a breath prayer, “Lord, have mercy.” I try to jot a note to express care. I use messaging or emails to check in with others who I care about. I often feel helpless, but I believe God can take the little I can offer and multiply it.
  3. Much of my online presence is about books and reading, and I will stick to that. I’ve been reading Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War right now. It is a wonderful account of how important books were to those in service during World War 2. We’re in a war, facing both dire prospects and extended time at home, books can inspire and divert us. So I’ll keep reading and reviewing and posting articles about books on my Facebook page, as well as “questions of the day,” quotes, and humor. To laugh, to share about books we’ve loved, and talk about books we might read next is an act of hope, and an affirmation of life.
  4. I sense that some of those I work with are already burning out on Zoom. It’s unavoidable for faculty and students I work with. But it is also tiring, because we “see” others, but have to work harder to connect. I’m learning to break these sessions up into smaller doses. I’m also wondering if sometimes, a phone call, or even an old-fashioned handwritten note or letter may be better. Zoom is a great tool, but I’m starting to rummage around and ask if there are other tools in the toolbox I should be using.
  5. I am not going to amplify the dire news, rumors, and controversy. Other than one instance of advocating around an issue that personally affected friends I care about, I try to keep it positive. I love to give shout-outs to our governor and state health director (a fellow Youngstowner and Youngstown State alumnus!) who are giving great leadership to our state. Otherwise, I try to post humor, encouraging stories like the technology developed locally to sterilize the critical N95 masks up to 20 times, and other things, like a video showing how you can make a no-sew mask, along with a selfie of me with one of those masks. There are news outlets and plenty of others bringing dire news, conflicting stories, and controversies. I’ll leave it to them. As for politics, I say the one referendum that counts is the first Tuesday of this November.

There is a scripture I was reminded of again today that shapes my approach:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8, NIV).

Nearly seven years ago when I launched this blog, I wrote, “We live in an amazingly diverse mosaic of peoples and ideas which can either be the source of endless conflict or the opportunity for rich engagement with one another across our differences in pursuing together goodness, truth, and beauty in our world.” I think we need this now as much as ever. So I will keep writing about our common love of all things related to books. I will keep writing stories about Youngstown. And I will keep cherishing each day God gives for us to share on this media.

Stay safe dear friends.

Physical Distancing, Not Social Distancing

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I live in Ohio, and have been quite grateful for the leadership of our governor, Mike Dewine, and the director of the Ohio Department of Health, Dr. Amy Acton (who grew up in Youngstown!) during this Covid-19 pandemic. During Dr. Acton’s briefing yesterday, she made a point that caught my attention. Quoting someone else who she did not name, she mentioned that it might be better to call what we need right now as physical distancing rather than social distancing.

Physical distancing is one of the critical measures we need to take to “flatten the curve” to avoid a surge of cases that overwhelm our health system, as occurred in Wuhan, Iran, Italy and elsewhere. This could mean doctors would have to make decisions of who gets respirators and who will not. In the same briefing, we learned that 60 to 80 percent of our state’s respirators are already in use, without Covid-19 cases. In addition to staying six to ten feet away from others and avoiding all physical contact, it has meant, in our state and many others, closures of schools and universities, bans on gatherings of over 100, closure of bars and restaurants except for take out purchases, bans on visitors to nursing facilities and prisons, cancellations of sporting and other events attracting crowds. Most religious bodies have cancelled services and gone to online streaming. Physical distancing could protect you from infection, or protect you from infecting someone who is vulnerable.

Social distancing. What we need to think about at this time is not becoming distant socially from one another, but rather finding new ways maintain and strengthen our social ties during an extraordinarily stressful time. On Meet the Press yesterday, David Brooks made this observation:

I looked back and read about all the different pandemics over centuries. And you think people come together in a crisis? They do in some kind of crisis. But in pandemic, they fall apart. The reporting from every crisis for the last thousand years of this sort is that neighbors withdraw from neighbors. You get widened class divisions. Out of fear you get a spirit of callousness.

The other day, I was talking to someone about the crazy hoarding of toilet paper, and he commented, “I’m stocking up on ammo.” His remark brought home to me that we face a question of what kind of society will we become in the next several months. We may choose a survival of the fittest ethic, fighting each other for toilet paper, food, or even a place in the line to get tested. Or we can choose to be a society seeking to recognize our connectedness. While we physical distance, we can reach out in other ways.

  • We can check in on the health and welfare of neighbors and those in our faith community.
  • We can use Nextdoor to learn of needs in our neighborhood. If you have a stash of toilet paper and learn of others with a need, you might consider helping.
  • Someone on quarantine or isolation (which can happen suddenly) legally cannot leave their home. Food, books, games, videos on their doorstep (let them keep them) might lift spirits in important ways.
  • We can particularly be aware of those who are alone, especially the elderly, and stay in contact.
  • We can pay attention to ways we may volunteer as appropriate to our health and age. In our area, voting is taking place. Most poll workers are over 65, putting them in a high risk group. If you have been laid off or work from home and are younger and in good health, you might help in their place.
  • One of the things that did not exist in the earlier pandemics is online technology. We can phone, text, message, Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, email, WhatsApp and more. In the last days I’ve been reached out to and reached out to others on many of these media. Religious communities can meet online. People can collaborate in all sorts of ways. Instead of using social media to engage in endless barrages of argument and fingerpointing, we can use it to stay in touch with friends, even share a laugh.

None of our countries will be the same when this ends. David Brooks observed that after the 1918 flu pandemic, people avoided talking about it “because they were ashamed of how they behaved.” This pandemic could rend the fabric of our society even worse than it has been in recent years. Or it could re-focus us on what is important–the ways in which we are mutually dependent upon each other and every human being is of value. Are we going to hoard toilet paper and ammo, or invest in strengthening our social connections? While we practice physical distancing, will we focus on our social connectedness? You and I will make decisions in these next days and weeks that not only affect the health of millions but the fabric of our society. How will you choose?

I’d Settle for Modest

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In a number of presidential campaigns the slogan of making or keeping America great has been a centerpiece. This fits a version of American history I grew up with that taught me what a great country the United States is–our democratic institutions, our Bill of Rights, our immense resources, our diverse population, and our influence in the world. I do think there is good in a number of these things, whether it be the presumption of innocence in criminal trials, the “first freedoms” of our First Amendment, our use of military power in some instances, particularly against Hitler. I think of the opportunity afforded so many like Michael Bloomberg, who came from very modest means, to work hard and smart to build a business, earn a fortune, and serve as Mayor of New York.

I love my country. But as a Christian I love a God who loves the world (John 3:16), and so I need to see my country within the world God loves. To share God’s heart is to share his love, and to love the United States alone is too small to share the heart of God. I love a God who is holy, just and true, and this requires me to look at my country through these lenses as well.

When I look at things this way, it leads me to far greater modesty about my country. While not denying the goods, there is another kind of history about which I’ve learned since I was in school. Much of it isn’t pretty. Some examples, that could be vastly expanded:

  • We didn’t “discover” America. There were Native peoples who called this home before we knew “America” was even here.
  • There were blacks forcibly brought as slaves to the United States even before the Mayflower landed in 1620.
  • Well into the early nineteenth century slavery was legal in the north as well as the south, and even when northern states abolished slavery, the economics of north and south made slavery a continuing necessity upheld by fugitive slave laws.
  • The subjection of Native peoples, Blacks, and women was written into our founding documents. Section 2, Article 3 of our Constitution reads: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” In other words, Native peoples had no representation (or tax responsibilities, a mark of citizenship), slaves were considered three-fifths of a person (and considerably less in the eyes of many), and women are not even mentioned.
  • Women did not obtain the right to vote until 1920.
  • After the Civil War, blacks were free but subject to a reign of terror through lynching, denial of voting rights, and segregation, collectively known as Jim Crow. More recent policies of incarceration have been called the “New Jim Crow” because of their focus on black men.
  • Native peoples suffered a string of broken agreements, displacement from good lands, and obliteration of their population through disease, the “Trail of Tears,” and massacres like Wounded Knee.
  • Only in 2020, after over two hundred failed attempts, did Congress pass a law making lynching illegal on a national basis, fifty years after the horrible lynching of Emmitt Till.

I don’t want to get into arguments that call out the notable exceptions or arguments that discuss the injustices, tyranny, and genocide that have occurred in other countries. It is a sad fact of human societies that they (and we) are capable of unspeakable evil.

All I want to suggest is that a healthy dose of modesty might serve us well as a nation.

Modesty saves us from trying to maintain a pretense of greatness that many know just isn’t so. Pretending one is clothed in greatness when in fact one is naked is not great, it is indecent and foolish. Modesty says, “let’s address our lack of clothing.”

Modesty allows us to start listening to other stories of America that are not so great rather than closing our ears. That may allow us to learn how America might be good, if not great for those for whom it has been neither.

Modesty admits that we don’t have it all, that others who are different may enrich us. Modesty recognizes value in all and includes all.

Modesty is an antidote to the burden of greatness, particularly when the greatness of some requires subduing others. People don’t tend to cooperate with being subdued–they protest, engage in civil disorder, revolt, sometimes violently or go to war. All of this comes at great cost. Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers makes the argument that every great power in history has ultimately collapsed under the burden of the cost of sustaining its greatness.

Modesty saves us from the extremes of ideologues, and the over-emphasis on national power. Modesty recognizes the value of local structures, both governmental and non-governmental including families, religious bodies, businesses, social organizations, and educational institutions. I get scared of both conservative and liberal ideologues who are inviting me into a sacred quest which I believe is reserved for my faith alone. I far prefer those who are modest about what they are doing, who admit that it is “just politics” and hope they will pursue this in the best sense of seeking what is just for the polis or city as a whole.

One may wonder about the inclusion of “Lady Liberty” as the image of this blog. To me it is an image that is at once modest and great. Lady Liberty is clothed modestly. She raises not a sword but a light. The rays of her crown are seven, symbolizing the invitation and welcome to America from the seven seas. The tablet she holds in her left are is inscribed “JULY IV MDCCLXXVI” (July 4, 1776), associating it with the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence affirming that all [men] are equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights. The statue inspired many of our fathers going off to war and welcomed them home. Likewise, many with virtually nothing to their name on arrival as immigrants found hope in the statue’s welcome. Modesty can be great. Might this be the time when our country aspires to the greatness of modesty about itself?

Are You “Sharing” Truth or Falsehoods?

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Reporters with various forms of “fake news” from an 1894 illustration (cropped) by Frederick Burr Opper, Public Domain via Wikipedia

One of the more grievous things about social media is to see the number of posts and memes, many of a political nature, that, when fact-checked, are either half-truths or outright lies. The most unsettling are personal attacks on individuals, based on false information.

I am most disturbed when I see friends who I know as professing Christians engaged in this kind of activity. The apostle Paul in Ephesians calls us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). What is disturbing is that much of this activity evidences neither truth nor love.

Sometimes, it may be that we see something that either incites our outrage, or reinforces an existing belief, and it is so easy to click “share” or “retweet.” The thing is that often, that is exactly what the originators of this content want us to do, whether they are partisans in this country or propagandists from foreign countries seeking to sow discord in the American system.

I think that if all professing Christians determined to not share and retweet political posts, without checking their truthfulness before passing them along, it would not stop this practice, but it might make a difference. If they went a step further and let the person who shared the information with them that it was inaccurate, this might give others pause (and might not).

This does raise the question of how we assess the truthfulness of posts and tweets. The Huffington Post recently published an article on “How to Recognize a Fake News Story” that reflects my own practices. They suggested nine practices:

  1. Read past the headline.
  2. Check what news outlet it is published on. (Google the site’s name.) I would add, be aware of the bias of all news outlets, even mainstream media.
  3. Check the publish date and time (sometimes old events are represented as current).
  4. Who is the author? (Search their past articles to see if they are reputable or have a reputation for hoaxes)
  5. Look at what links and sources are used.
  6. Look for questionable quotes and images. (The article suggests tools you can use).
  7. Beware of confirmation bias. (Don’t just share something because it agrees with your point of view–it could be false.)
  8. Search if other news outlets are reporting it. (Especially those with a different bias).
  9. Think before you share.

I also use sites like FactCheck.org, or Politifact.com to check posts, quotes, and memes. Often I end up finding the actual meme or post and then a detailed citation of reputable sources confirming the post or showing it partially true or false. Some people have accused these sites of bias, but I have found them willing to take to task posts across the political spectrum, and to provide reputable sources to back up their findings.

What is most challenging to me however is that I do not want to be found disobedient to the word of God. And I believe that anyone who really loves God and God’s word does not want to be found disobedient, either. Consider some of these scriptures and their implications for what we say and write online:

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16.

The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.” Proverbs 12:22.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” 1 Corinthians 13:6

“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” Ephesians 4:25

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” 1 Peter 2:1

I spend a good deal of time online with this blog, and on different social media sites I curate. This is a challenging word that I consider:

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” Matthew 12:36 [All verses NIV]

I just added it up. I’ve written over 1.5 million words on this blog since I began it in 2013. I believe I will give account for every one. As well as my posts and comments on social media. All my emails. My words offline. Apart from grace, I know I’m in deep trouble. But even with grace, I’m sobered that my words, indeed my life, is an open book to God. I love God and I want to tell a story God loves.

If you love God, I think you do as well. We may not always agree, and I don’t think we need to mute our disagreements or our convictions about parties and issues. Can we agree to tell the truth to the best of our ability? Can we agree not to “gaslight” each other? Can we agree to believe the best of each other?

Jesus called his followers the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We may wonder whether what we do makes a difference. I would suggest that it does not take much salt to flavor something. Even a small light can pierce and dispel darkness. “Tipping points” happen when a number of small changes come together and have a cumulative effect. Imagine what would happen if the 65% of self-identifying Christians in the U.S. took truthfulness online seriously. It may not end our political disagreements, but I wonder if it would change the online world and the rancor and discord we encounter.

Will you take truthfulness seriously? Will you encourage this in your social media circles? Do you think I am speaking the truth? Will you share that truth?