Healing and hope
The coronavirus brings suffering—but also glimmers of redemption
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It started with fatigue on March 9—a heavy feeling, like his joints were tied with weights, or like he had just run a marathon. Ryan Anderson, assistant pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn., didn’t think too much of it. He had a busy Sunday the day before, and he had lost an hour of sleep due to daylight saving. And fatigue was not an unusual symptom for a pastor of 750 worshippers and a father of three young daughters.
Anderson went to bed early that night. But the next day, he woke up still exhausted. When his body started burning with a fever, Anderson decided to leave the church office early and go home. Even then, he didn’t think he might have contracted COVID-19.
But he woke up feverish and aching the next morning. A physician friend suggested take a test for the coronavirus: Other people in the area had been testing positive. Some of them had been at the same school event Anderson had attended the previous weekend. A day later, Anderson received the results: He had COVID-19.
Anderson was one of the first individuals in Tennessee to test positive for COVID-19. I talked to several Christians who tested positive for the novel coronavirus who have now recovered. They all experienced mild versions of the virus: fever, cough, body aches, and loss of taste and smell. But no shortness of breath or hospitalizations. One man I talked to is watching his daughter fight COVID-19 for her life. Yet in all these cases, God taught and comforted them—even during their suffering.
Anderson wasn’t afraid when he tested positive—he’s 42 and healthy, and his symptoms didn’t seem medically serious. But he was frustrated about the inconvenience of self-quarantine. His family had been looking forward to visiting the Grand Canyon during spring break, but they had to cancel that trip. He shut himself in a guest room to keep his family safe (so far, nobody has exhibited any symptoms). His wife would leave breakfast, lunch, and dinner by the door. Once he heard her footsteps fade, he would crack his door to retrieve food he didn’t have any appetite to eat. He would chat with his daughters via FaceTime, even though they were in the same house.
It was a bizarre feeling being a prisoner inside his own house, kind of “like the Count of Monte Cristo,” Anderson recalled: “What was the most difficult thing for me was not the physical sickness. It was the relational isolation from the people you know and love and care about. … I missed my friends and I missed my parishioners and I missed my people.”
Life was also changing rapidly for people all over the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic one day after he got tested. A few days later, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines on canceling or postponing mass gatherings. The next day, President Donald Trump announced a strict set of guidelines restricting Americans’ daily activities for the next 15 days. Shops and restaurants shuttered, highways emptied, and schools across the nation shut down.
Life moved slowly for Anderson as his body battled the worst of the illness. He felt some lung irritation, a tingly shiver down his chest as though he had just gone for a run in freezing temperatures. He lost his sense of taste and smell. His temperature rose, ebbed, and rose. His body ached terribly. Sometimes he didn’t have the mental energy to read his Bible for long. Then as he gradually recovered his strength, Anderson battled boredom and screen-time fatigue. He soon tired of reading books on his Kindle, tired of watching TV, and of scrolling through social media feeds and emails on his cell phone.
Sometimes he sat still and stared out the window for hours, watching cardinals and robins chirp and welcome a beautiful spring that’s otherwise been disastrous for the world. And those were the moments when he enjoyed “a real kindness” from God, Anderson said. God reminded him of Matthew 6:25-34. “Consider the birds in the air. I’m going to take care of you, Ryan. Don’t worry about your life.”
Those moments of silence and solitude were involuntary at first. But Anderson found himself appreciating the forced slowness and stillness. So he began asking: What are the daily hurries he can safely relinquish while still accomplishing his work and taking care of those around him? Why does he set a pressuring mental pace for himself? Even in a pandemic, why the urge to pile his day with more “busy stuff”?
Even for a pastor, moments of spiritual sabbath are hard to achieve. What new spiritual disciplines could he develop during semi-isolation and make his new normal? How can he shepherd others to do that too? How, in the Age of the Coronavirus, can the Church continue to do what Christ called her to do: share the good news to the world and care for the sick, poor, old, and lonely?
While Anderson pondered these questions, on March 12, Matt Fray, an assistant pastor at Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas, was meeting with elders in his church to discuss whether they should continue holding church meetings and activities. They decided to conduct services as usual that Sunday. Then less than an hour later, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins banned community gatherings of more than 500 people in the county, citing evidence of “community spread” of the virus in the county. Four days later, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson banned gatherings of more than 50.
Fray’s first worry was for his wife and mother. His wife is a cancer survivor, and his mother has terminal brain cancer, so both have compromised immune systems. Fray also worried what the crisis would mean for his congregation—how would church services, worship, Bible studies, and small groups function? How would the church care for victims? But he never considered worrying for himself: “I’ve not had so much as a broken bone or stitches. I’ve been very healthy, and so I couldn’t imagine that I would have the virus a week later.”
On the evening of March 15, Fray began feeling his body heat up. He went to bed early but woke up exhausted. He had a low-grade fever of 99.5 degrees, occasional coughs, fatigue, and a strange sinus-like pressure in his nose. Two days later, a church staff member texted him: She had tested positive for COVID-19. By the end of that day, two more church staff members reported feeling identical symptoms. All their tests came back positive. The church asked everyone on staff to work from home.
Fray was sick for about 12 days. He spent hours calling and texting everyone he had been in contact with in the last three weeks to warn them that he had contracted the coronavirus. As a pastor, that was a lot of people from staff meetings, small groups, worship services, classes, and Bible study groups. People from church and his kids’ school delivered groceries and hot meals at the door. Some sent him warm chocolate chip cookies. But Fray could no longer taste or smell anything.
When I talked to Fray, he no longer had any symptoms but still had not recovered his sense of taste and smell. That’s a small win for the family—he’s now the designated dog poop-scooper of the house. When he came out of quarantine from his home office, his kids’ schools had closed down indefinitely. So for once, the whole family was able to sit together for family devotions, sometimes twice a day. They also played board games and shot basketball together—simple, ordinary family activities that they had missed because of their typically busy work and school lives.
Fray remembers standing in line at Costco for more than an hour the week before he got ill. People were frantically stocking up on household items, and Fray had too—just in case. Everyone was uneasy.
“I think we, before this whole pandemic, especially Americans or Westerners, lived on this illusion of having a pretty high level of control over our bodies and schedules and businesses and even our churches,” Fray said. “We lived under the illusion of control, and I think this virus has shown us a more real picture of the world—that we’re not in control. Only God is in control, and that’s actually not a bad thing. It’s actually a very good thing, a very comforting thing.”
But the acute realization that we don’t have much control over our lives, let alone the lives of our loved ones, can be terrifying and unsettling. Timothy Paul Jones, a professor of Christian family ministry at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is standing in the middle of the tension between trust and fear: His oldest adopted daughter, Hannah, is fighting for her life in an intensive care unit.
On March 31, Hannah called her parents and said she had a fever. She’s a caregiver for children with special needs at a community care center in Louisville, Ky. She stayed home from work the next day, but her temperature rose higher and higher. She began to shiver from chills. Jones and his wife urged her to go to the emergency room, suspecting she might have COVID-19. Hannah drove herself to the hospital, and by the next day, she struggled to breathe. So the medical staff rushed her to the ICU and hooked her up to a ventilator.
Because of the high risk of the virus, the Joneses aren’t able to visit their daughter. “There are times when what you most want for your children is simply to be with your children—and this is one of them,” Jones told me via email. Since Hannah’s hospitalization, they’ve been able to FaceTime her briefly about five times, thanks to the nurses who have tried everything they can to update the Joneses on their daughter’s condition.
Each time, Jones intended to say something meaningful. But the moment he saw her face, with a ventilator tube running down her mouth, all he could say was: “I love you. So many people are praying for you. Don’t give up.” Though she could not speak, she made a heart shape with her hands and pointed at her parents—I love you too.
The Joneses are currently under self-quarantine because of their contact with Hannah after she contracted the virus. Every slow-passing day, every agonizing moment, Jones finds himself unable to pray for much more than for God to heal his daughter: “As a parent in a moment like this, we all become Jairus, the synagogue leader who fell before Jesus and had nothing to say but, ‘My daughter is dying. Come and touch her so she can live.’”
In that passage (Mark 5:21-43), some messengers later tell Jesus not to bother coming anymore, because Jairus’ daughter is already dead. But Jesus turns to Jairus and says, “Do not fear; simply trust.”
“I can’t claim that I have no fear at this moment—I do,” Jones said. Some moments, fear of what might happen to Hannah grips Jones: “But there is more trust than fear, and trust is greater than fear. Our trust that God can heal Hannah doesn’t guarantee that she will be healed. The object of our faith is not healing; the object of our faith is the Healer, who may have some plan other than healing.”
And that’s his daily battle: trusting God despite the temptation to fear. When Jones emailed me, he had just tweeted an update on his daughter: “Hannah’s night last night wasn’t great; she seemed to become anxious or emotional in the evening, and they had to increase her oxygen again. They’ve tried reducing it again today. Right now, we’re waiting to hear when they will receive the plasma for the experimental treatment.”
No parent wants to be tweeting such updates on a child. To fight against fear, to fight for trust, Jones repeats the Word to himself over and over. He says certain lines from the Heidelberg Catechism have been particularly helpful: “We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing in creation will separate us from His love.”
April 12, Easter, is Hannah’s birthday. It would be the first birthday the Joneses won’t be spending with Hannah since they adopted her when she was 8. Jones doesn’t know what will happen then. But he knows what happened on Easter more than two millennia ago: Jesus Christ rose from the dead and redeemed the greatest act of injustice—His own crucifixion. If God can redeem that, He will redeem all the aches, laments, and tears from the current pandemic.
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