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Lectionary Living

Coronavirus, anxiety, and scripture (Lent 5)

Ezekiel 37:1-14  •  Psalm 130  •  Romans 8:6-11  •  John 11:1-45


    Today's blogpost, half again as long as usual, is brought to you by the novel coronavirus. The readings have so much to say about the virus. Both Ezekiel and John bring stories about death. Over the weekend, the number of COVID-19 deaths has more than doubled somewhere. I forget where. But I remember the fact, the reality, that some of us are not going to be alive when this is over. And yet people aren't talking about dying or specifics like wills or medical powers of attorney. The challenge of leaving this world with one's affairs in order - including one's relationships and the repairing and restoring of connections with others – is a high bar.  

    Instead of talking about what is painfully obvious, people have dropped back to what comes most naturally: blaming one another. Like Martha and Mary, who both blamed Jesus for the death of their brother, all of us are seeking someone to blame. Daily, the news coverage looks for people to blame for the disease outbreak and for problems with the response. It's fair enough, in my view, to learn what we can. But the constant blaming locks in the anxiety and keeps us from learning.

    The situation reminds me of a time when my father was hospitalized, close to death and in a lot of pain, but pain meds were not coming on time. A family member absolutely chewed out a nurse. The nurse finally looked at him and said, tears in her eyes, "I can't think when someone is yelling at me." So true, and the corollary is this: "I can't think when I'm yelling at someone else."

    In or out of a hospital, people need to remain calm in order to fully engage a problem. Anxiety, and the fear underneath it, get in the way of thoughtful problem-solving. The delightful moment in the John story – verse 39 - where Martha warns that there will be a smell when the tomb of Lazarus is opened, is a great example. There's Martha, poor thing, the unwitting example of how not to live for countless humans over the last 2000 years, once again is displaying her anxious self for all of us to see. While everyone else is following Jesus to the tomb lost in their own grief, she is alert to danger, this time the danger of a bad smell. She's right of course, there could have been quite a smell in a hot climate, four days after a death. As it turns out, there is no smell! She was alert to something that did not turn out to be a problem at all.

    This is exactly the situation we find ourselves in, related to the virus. We cannot get tested – we have no idea whether we are transmitting the virus or whether it's being transmitted to us, whether we are sick or well, whether our family members are safe or not. Like Martha, many of us are on high alert, vigilant to threats – from a doorknob not wiped down, to any dry cough, to no ventilator available – take your pick or add your own! There's plenty to keep one up at night.

    At the other extreme, some of us, who are accustomed to other people doing the worrying, are on spring break at the beach or otherwise ignoring the problem entirely. For human beings to survive, a certain amount of anxiety is necessary. A person doing no worrying, for instance, may fail to wash his hands: a simple responsibility both for self and to others.  

    When anxiety gets distributed unevenly – when one person does all the worrying, and others do none – immaturity thrives. In the story, the possibility of a bad smell crosses Martha's mind. She has experience. As was the tradition in her culture, she has washed the bodies of the dead, as soon as possible, early in the cool morning air. She knows the smell of death. Unable to contain her own anxiety, she tells her worry to Jesus. Overheard, it might have spread like a contagious virus among the crowd, with a very different ending to the story. Instead, the crowd either didn't hear her at all or discounted her anxious voice, following a true leader: Jesus.

    By the time Martha had the thought that the body might smell, she also had felt the emotion of fear and a visceral response of disgust related to the smell. The brain has ways of remembering and tying physical senses to emotions to thoughts, all occurring before reaching one's conscious awareness. Once there, it takes time to think rather than react. For Martha, reflecting on how she's feeling might start something like this: What is this fear, rising within me? Oh yes, it is awful, that smell of death and decay. And yet, here is Jesus, saying to move the stone. From here, it would be a quick hop to an exploration of a sense of responsibility for the smell, for others, and a sense of shame – all, upon reflection, determined to be emotionally unreasonable. In the end, some synthesis of her thoughts and feelings occurs, with more freedom to manage herself, informed by the integration of reason and emotion.

    In the story, Martha does come to her senses, eventually, opening her mind to enormous possibilities she had never considered before. Similarly, Ezekiel offers a new way of thinking to his people, exiled in Babylon and bereft of any hope. He describes a vision made popular in a spiritual song, dem bones.  The song gives the picture of the bones of one skeleton rising up, forming skin and sinews, and coming back to life. The passage gives even more – a whole people rise up together, with renewed purpose for their lives.

    We are so similar to the people in the Babylonian captivity of 580 BCE. We are more or less captives in our own homes. Anxiety seizes us and spreads through our families and communities. We don't know what's going to happen, when or how this is going to end or at least, lessen. It is a unique global opportunity for each of us to observe a time of self-reflection regarding the management of our own anxiety and our connections with others. The wisdom of the Ezekiel passage is that none of us are in this alone. Picture the bones of the dead in every nation rising up, becoming whole, and forming a new and profound sense of our responsibilities to one another as members of the human species.


For reflection:

Morning: To what extent does the coronavirus challenge me to get my affairs in order? What relationships do I want to work on today?

Evening: How does worry spread around my family and friends? What is my part in it?

Psalm 130:6 My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.

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