By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
I remember sitting in a nursing home in Catonsville, Maryland, with my aged Aunt Inez years ago. Born in 1894 she had seen a great deal in her many years of life, and I was just in my twenties at the time. She shared with me her many memories of years gone by, especially about the “Spanish Flu” of 1918.
She was about my age at the time and there were no vaccines, no cure, just a call for people to stay in isolation and in prayer. She said that that virus affected in some way every family in the little town of Lansdowne, Maryland, where she taught school. In the spring of the following year they counted their losses and grieved a deep and long grief.
At the time, I thought this was an unbelievable tale of how things were in the “old days.” I never once imagined that one day I could be living during a devastating pandemic.
It has been a long year since we first got the news of this worldwide crisis and began to close down churches for in-person worship. Last March we could hardly have imagined that a year later we would be grieving 500,000 American lives lost to this deadly coronavirus.
Like my Aunt Inez, few if any of us have been spared the knowledge of someone in our lives—family member, friend, colleague, role model, church member—someone who lost a battle to this awful virus. We share a common grief, and too many of us carry burdens of sorrow and helplessness.
Deep appreciation for ministry, compassion
At this milestone in our tragic tally of lives lost, I want to express my deep appreciation for pastors, laity and churches who have ministered and offered compassion and relief to countless numbers of people in their communities. The Apostle Paul describes well the strength God has given you for the task:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (II Corinthians 1:3-4)
I also call us to care for ourselves in these stressful times, regularly observing the Sabbath and engaging in spiritual, physical and emotional self-care. Rest in the promise that “God will go with you and will never leave you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6) And also, “Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31).
Strive to infuse life into this season of death. The church is founded on the resurrection of Christ and the sure and certain promise of life abundant and life everlasting. We rely on resilient life that springs from the jaws of death, on joy that comes the morning after, and on hope that burns brightly, even in the midnight hour.
Be hope-givers through the gospel
We are uniquely positioned to be hope-givers in this world through the gospel that we proclaim in Word and deed at this crucial time. Be a “resurrection hope-giver” for someone who is bound by deep grief. Never forget the power of simple words of kindness and acts of compassion. In addition, do not pass up any chance to give a witness to the hope that is in you and that can inspire others to faith in Christ.
My Aunt Inez also told me of the revival of religious fervor that happened in her community after the long siege of the pandemic of 1918. Instead of being buried in inconsolable grief, the community embraced faith that spurred on a wave of community development and prosperity.
Likewise, our sobering milestone of death can be a springboard to new life as only God can give it. Be a part of the new life that rises from this unique and terrible time in the history of our nation and the world.
I close with a hymn by our contemporary “sweet psalmist,” Rev. Carolyn Gillette
We Grieve 500,000
(Sung to the tune of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” Permission is given for use in our churches.)
We grieve five hundred
thousand, yet we can’t understand
We cannot grasp how many have died throughout this land
We cannot see their faces or hear the stories told
Of all the ways they blessed us, the young ones and the old.
O God, we grieve the
struggle of those who died alone
So far from friends and neighbors, from all they’d ever known.
We grieve for precious people who could not say good-bye
We weep for those, now mourning, who sit along and cry
O God, we grieve for
millions who now are unemployed
Who cannot feed their families, whose hope has been destroyed
We grieve that needed workers must worry for their health
While some with lives of privilege stay home and build their wealth
God of love and mercy, we
cry to you, “How long?”
In troubled times remind us: You love is ever strong
Now as we grieve the suffering, Lord, show us how to be
A healing, loving presence in each community.