Crisis: Week 10

I have found myself desperately reaching for the calm wisdom of Mr. Rogers over the past few weeks as the Covid-19 virus has made it’s way around the globe.

It’s one thing to get on social media and post funny memes about all the people panic-buying toilet paper, or grumbling at the grocery story with the hand soap aisle is nearly bare. It’s a different ballgame, though, when it comes to making the decisions only a pastor of a local congregation can.

Idaho has still not had a single confirmed case, and while one would think this would make the decision easy (it doesn’t affect us… yet), it actually makes it harder.

My congregation, like so many smaller local churches, is an ageing congregation. I’ve never taken the time to figure out the median age, but I’m sure it would be in silver-hair territory. This is an important factor, because those most susceptible to Covid-19 are the elderly.

I’ve received calls from people who have heard churches in other states are cancelling services, or at the very least canceling extra meetings and gatherings, and each conversation forces me to make the decision to continue worship services all over again. Each time I have to explain to myself and to someone else why I think it is premature to start canceling our services.

I recently canceled a trip for the purpose of continuing education when I had to admit to myself that I can get my continuing education hours later, when there isn’t a virus spreading, or on the internet. I wasn’t concerned about my own health–after all, I’m in a safe age category with no underlying conditions to exacerbate the issue. However, I wondered what the chances were of being exposed to something–if I would need to self-quarantine if exposed to something, and if I might unknowingly carry something home. It seemed most prudent to stay home and remain accessible to those who might need me during this time.

Every time I have to make a decision about what to cancel and what to continue, I have an opportunity to demonstrate calm in the midst of crisis. Each conversation leads to the chance to remind people what the CDC is saying about how to avoid getting sick: wash your hands, try not to touch your face, avoid large gatherings, etc…

Each conversation also leads to an opportunity to show people what the inner peace of Christ looks like. This is where I reach back to the things I learned about navigating a crisis from Mr. Rogers.

I was a child in elementary school in the 1980s when the AIDS pandemic was new, mysterious, and frightening. Politicians and religious communities either ignored the crisis or shamed and blamed the victims. I remember watching the local evening news and being shocked to hear that a man in my hometown had been savagely beaten for being HIV positive. A couple from my home church, who had opened their homes countless times to hard-to-place foster children took in two sisters, one with full-blown AIDS, so that the two girls could stay together. It broke my young heart to see otherwise good adults leave the church in fear of a sick little girl.

Crisis too often brings out the worst in people. Our fear reflexes kick in and we resort to selfish actions–like hoarding toilet paper, spraying Lysol on Asian people on crowded trains, or thinking we can save ourselves by locking others out.

Mr. Rogers taught me that we don’t have to resort to our worst instincts in a crisis, though. While civic and religious leaders were hiding from the AIDS crisis, Mr. Rogers hosted a show in which he invited openly gay guests to participate. It was unheard of in the 1980s, especially on a children’s show. Mr. Rogers, though, wanted to show us that we can choose love and compassion even in crisis.

If we don’t want a crisis to bring out the worst in us, how can we choose to be our best selves? The answer is easy, but living it will require some discipline. If the our worst instincts are selfishness, our best instincts would be self-sacrifice.

Jesus demonstrated self-sacrifice every step of the way. The Son of God could have had all the riches and power in the world, but he chose to live humbly as one of us. He didn’t raise up an army to force the nations to bow before him, instead he went, unarmed, to the cross and showed us all what our sins do to us. He spent time with the people others said were untouchable or unlovable, and he gave them a new chance to live, even if it meant he was rejected for his actions.

Jesus’ (and Mr. Rogers’) self-sacrifice was made possible by their ability to love other people. The more I learn to love others the more I realize love isn’t actually a feeling. It’s a choice. We choose to love others–it can be easier to make that choice with some people than with others. Regardless of how easy or difficult it is, we still have the choice.

Mr. Rogers put his career on the line by inviting openly gay and HIV+ people on his show in an age when that could have been the death knell for his program. He was willing to sacrifice his way of life to show us how to love the neighbors we were most afraid of. His calm, friendly demeanor in the face of crisis showed children like myself that fear doesn’t have to dictate our reactions and that we didn’t have fall into the trappings of selfishness.

Jesus touched lepers who were thought to be untouchable, dined with sinners no other religious figure would go near, and humbled himself to live the life of a poor, itinerant preacher when he could have snapped his fingers and ruled the world. He sacrificed of himself on a daily basis and he did it by openly choosing to love the people he encountered, no matter how hard they were to love.

In this time of crisis, we can choose to resort to selfish self-preservation by hoarding resources and locking others out… or we can choose to love by being willing to sacrifice or ourselves. This might mean that we have to radically alter how we live our lives right now, so that we can take precautions to keep others healthy. It may mean we need to go without certain things so that those who need them most will have access. It may mean we need to take on responsibilities for our vulnerable neighbors so that they don’t have to go out into crowded places and risk exposing themselves.

It all starts with a simple choice, though: Love.

Love your neighbor.

Love the stranger.

Simply choose love.

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