Epistles from the Epidemic I

Grace and peace to you all! May this find you enjoying good health and abundant hope!

Having cancelled church gatherings yesterday and having read the most recent news this morning in which this current crisis is going to take some time to resolve, it struck me that I will be pastoring from a social distance (everyone’s favorite new phrase) for the foreseeable future. How does one do that? What are the options?

Well, at least one historical, and even biblical option, is by writing letters. Paul produced many epistles that addressed church concerns in the fledgling community of faith; others did so as well. A letter is portable and repeatable and, to some degree, personal. So I will be writing epistles during the midst of these circumstances. They will perhaps find a broader audience than just my congregation or just my family and friends. As far as I am concerned, let them be read far and wide.

Paul would always begin with a traditional greeting, and I’ve put that here as well. Something that I’m liable to repeat.

I want to start by addressing a question that I have been asked frequently since the outbreak of COVID-19: how is Scott? Scott, our son, is currently in Wuxi, China, to teach English and Drama at an after-school center. Since the outbreak, Scott has been restricted pretty much to his small apartment. Many public places have been closed. He depends on delivery for what food he is able to get. His company is still paying him (I know it’s Lent, but can I get a hearty “Hallelujah!” for that!), and he’s on salary so he doesn’t have to record or report hours. Right now there would be no hours to have. The company has elected to have its teachers try to create some educational videos, and that is fortunately right in Scott’s sweet spot. He had already ordered some equipment to create videos for another reason, so he was somewhat prepared. He’s still working out the details of making videos, but it gives him a creative outlet which is very much needed.

In essence, Scott is sort of cell-bound at the moment. Scott says that there are no bars on the door or windows, but there might as well be. The city of Wuxi is pretty much shut down and movement is not happening. While not technically imprisoned, he is most certainly restricted. Being a foreigner has imposed even more difficulties in engaging the culture.

I counseled him that Abba Anthony told his brothers, “Go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Scott is now dealing with that piece of advice and experience. Alone and isolated, Scott is having to deal much with the inner journey and what his mind can engage and entertain.

I have told him to do three things: create, consume, and connect.*

Create seems obvious; when we have time alone and in quiet, then we can write or draw or imagine or make poetry or plot out novels. In other words, he is now being given a great gift of time in which he does not have to be active out in the world, but he can be very active with the interior life of creativity.

Consume applies to what he has before him in terms of books, movies, or other media. We got him a subscription to Audible back at Christmas, so he’s got lots of audio books that he can listen to. He may not have many physical books in front of him, but with the technologies we have in this world, the range of things to read and consume is vast indeed —virtually inexhaustible.

Connect points to sharing stories and life even when we cannot get out and about. Emails, chats, messages, blogs, calls—we have so many modes of communication that we should make use of. Connecting is a way to hear how others are and to let them know we’re okay. Connecting is a way to encourage those who are going through various trials or tests in their lives at this point in time. Connecting is part of what keeps us healthy and whole and sane. When we lose connection, then we will struggle even more.

So having written it out, it strikes me that this is good advice not only to Scott but to all of us who are going to be a bit more isolated in these days of ‘social distancing.’ We can be distanced, but we should not be anti-social because of it. We are all going to be ‘self-quarantining’ in the days ahead; and if not, then it is likely that the government will enforce restrictions. Knowing it’s coming, I hope that this is wise advice which may help you deal with these difficult days. Create, consume, connect.

Let me also offer some information. Someone told me that as a parent I would have to be very concerned for Scott being in China. Yes, I am. But information is important in the midst of crises—good, fact-based information. So I made the effort to look up statistics from the World Health Organization about the current situation in China. Scott is in Wuxi, a city of about 3 million people. It is located in Jiangsu Province which has a population of about 80 million people. He is about 450 miles east of Wuhan where the outbreak began. China took serious steps to isolate and restrict contact when it became obvious what was happening. As a result there have only been 631 cases of COVID-19 reported in Jiangsu Province and no deaths. That is comforting for me to learn and hold on to. Scott is in a place that is relatively safe right now, especially in comparison to other clusters of outbreak.

The reality is that we are in far more danger here in the United States at this moment in time. The spread of COVID-19 continues, and we do not have the tests and data to know yet how far-reaching it is. We have perhaps been too slow to isolate and reduce our social contact. Some are arguing it is no worse than the common flu, but the reality is that we are still in the early days in this situation. There is much yet to come. Please take precautions and seek accurate medical information from reputable sources. There is a danger in listening to the many myths and the flood of misinformation that is swirling around us.

I will close this epistle for the day. I am grateful for times when I can communicate with Scott and offer encouragement and counsel. I am grateful for family and friends and those who connect with me and offer the same. I am grateful for Graystone Presbyterian Church and the good people I serve there. I am hopeful that we will weather this storm and be stronger for it.

Be safe. Be healthy. Be good to one another.
Blessings, Les

*I believe I got those three from Charlie Gilkey and his Productive Flourishing Website. I want to give credit where it is due.

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