The news this week of the first diagnosed case of Ebola in the United States in our very own backyard – Presbyterian is Northway’s neighborhood hospital, Vickery Meadows where the afflicted man lived is part of our congregation’s “front doorstep” Mission field through the work of Oasis de Esperanza, and Hotchkiss Elementary School where some of the children in the family of the afflicted man attend is one of our “Signature Outreach Ministries” – has given us all pause.
The traditional five stages of grief provide a helpful roadmap to understanding the range of reactions and responses that we are experiencing in ourselves and observing in others.
Denial: The initial state of disbelief that this is really happening and the refusal to accept its full reality.
Anger: The frustrated and frightened outpouring of raw emotion.
Bargaining: Looking for someone or something to blame, and the offer to change behaviors in the hope that it might change circumstances.
Depression: The dawning realization of the full reality of the situation and its dire consequences.
Acceptance: Finding a way to live in the hope, love and peace that God in Jesus Christ supplies that is bigger than the circumstances that we face.
These are the natural and normal inward responses to our outward experiences of loss and threat. They are part of the path that inner healing takes when we are wounded or worried. Our commitment to Christ certainly doesn’t exempt us from such experiences of difficulty or emotions of distress. Even the most cursory reading of Jesus’ response to the death of his good friend Lazarus (John 11), and the accounts of the deep personal crisis that Paul found himself facing during the Second Missionary Journey (2 Corinthians 1:3-2:4; 4:7-18; 11:21-10) are sufficient Biblical grounds for the spiritual legitimization of grief.
Because we are human beings, when we get bad news or face difficult circumstances, we will find ourselves launched out onto the sea of grief where we are forced to weather the storm. But because we are Christians, we are called to be and do something more than just grieve, spiritually and emotionally legitimate as grief may be. Paul described what we are capable of and called to as Christians to be a matter of “hopeful grieving” (I Thessalonians 4:13). Not ignoring our pain and fear, in faith we are exhorted to push through it into something else.
When an explosion and fire destroyed the music room of Cleveland Hill Junior High School in Buffalo in 1953, the Rev. Charles B. Smith visited the homes of the parents who lost children in the tragedy. The shock of the community, and the anguish of those who had to go find a casket for eleven and twelve year old children was almost too much to bear. Fathers and mothers spoke of the comfort and caring and prayerful support that Rev. Smith gave as a Christian and neighbor. He spoke to their condition out of the resources of his faith, and out of his understanding for their grief in a personal way, for one of the fourteen children lost in the school fire was his youngest daughter, Reba. [Told by David Poling in his Sermon “The Last Fraud” in The Gift of Easter, Floyd Thatcher, editor, Word Books, 1976].
Our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior pushes us into an entirely different gear as we make our way through life as Christians. “The love of Christ constrains us” is how Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:14. That word “constrains” in Greek is a word that describes the action of “compressing forcibly all of our energies into one channel.”
In your imagination see the concentration of water flowing through the nozzle of a fire hose, how it focuses and directs all of that potential and power into a particular direction. In exactly the same way, the love of Christ “compresses forcibly” all of our energy as Christians into a channel of response. This explains the remarkable record of how Christians have reacted through the centuries to the difficult circumstances that have broken upon them as part of their life in this world.
When a devastating plague swept across the ancient world in the third century, Christians were the only ones who cared for the sick, which they did at the risk of contracting the plague themselves. Meanwhile, pagans were throwing infected members of their own families into the streets even before they died, in order to protect themselves from the disease. (http://www.earlychurch.com/unconditional-love.php)
Around A.D. 260 Dionysius wrote:
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty; never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and caring for others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”
Large numbers of pagans, including rulers, priests and physicians, having no hope or anchor for their souls, fled to get away from the plague. They left their sick behind, alone, without care or the basic necessities of life. The Christians, as a whole, tended to remain and care for their loved ones, and for each other. In many cases the love of God in them stretched far enough to also enter the deserted houses of the pagans and care for those sick as well. This individual act, resulting from asking themselves what Jesus would do in the same situation, had a profound impact. (http://www.gci.org/gospel/evang/ordinary)
And this isn’t just ancient church history. All of the medical professionals who have been in the news in recent weeks for having contracted Ebola while serving in West Africa and then being care-flighted home to receive treatment in the United States were serving through missionary agencies as part of their own commitment to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
In our own spiritual tradition, the Stone/Campbell Movement, we have the example of David Lipscomb (1831-1917) who served sacrificially during the Cholera Epidemic in Nashville in 1873 when 1 out of every 25 people died in that city. Because David Lipscomb was a leader in that part of our church that asked to be counted separately in the 1906 United States Census, he is better known in the Church of Christ than he is among the Disciples of Christ, but for all of our differences, we are still part of the same spiritual family of churches, and so he is “ours” too.
Even though he lived well outside the city of Nashville, safe from the devastating effects of the Cholera outbreak, David Lipscomb moved into the city during the Cholera outbreak when so many with means were fleeing it in panic. This left the poor at the greatest risk, and David Lipscomb as a Biblical Christian knew all about “God’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable,” how they are the special objects of God’s care and concern, and therefore of the church’s as well.
C. Leonard Allen in his book Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church (ACU 1993) described the work that David Lipscomb did in those harrowing days.
Though Lipscomb himself was not physically strong at the time, he worked for days among the poor and sick, placing his own life at risk. He helped distribute food and supplies. He went into the homes of destitute black residents of Nashville and helped to clean and feed them. And he used his buggy to carry a group of nuns – whom he deeply respected for their courage – to and from the places where they were needed. (93-94)
In his periodical, The Gospel Advocate, David Lipscomb addressed the spiritual crisis that the Nashville Cholera Epidemic posed for Christians. As trite and hackneyed as it has become in the church today as a gimmick and a merchandizing platform, David Lipscomb positioned the decision of Christians in his day as to how they would respond to the crisis they faced in terms of simple obedience to the example and teachings of Jesus Christ – “W.W.J.D.?”
To reproduce the life of Christ in our own lives is to act as Christ would act, were he in our places. We thus become Christ’s representatives to the world. The solemn pledge of our lives is to act to the best of our ability in the various relationships that we occupy in the world, and in the exigencies and circumstances in which we are placed as Christ would act, were he here situated as we are…
Recently the Cholera made a fearful visitation upon our people. It fell with especial severity upon the poor…
Now in view of these things and the wild panic that seized the population, what would Christ have done in the emergency? Had he been a resident of Nashville with ten, twenty or a hundred thousand dollars, what would he have done? What did he do in the person of his representatives here? Would he have become panic stricken with fear—fear of death, and have used his means to get himself and family, with their fashionable and luxurious appendages out of danger, to some place of fashionable resort and pleasure, and left his poor brethren and neighbors to suffer and perish from neglect and want?
That is just what he did do in the person of many of his professed representatives. In the person of others he retired to the cool shades of his own luxurious and spacious city mansion elevated above the noxious miasms [sic] that destroyed the poor and unfortunate and left them to die, in want and neglect, without attention from him. Did you who so acted bear true testimony to the world for him for whom you profess to act? Was not your course a libel upon him and his character? How can those who so acted again profess to be his children?
The religion of our Savior was intended to make us like Christ, not only in our labor of love—of our self-sacrifice for the good of others, but also in raising us above a timid, quaking fear of death. If it does not make us willing to brave death and spend our time and money for the good of our suffering fellow-creatures, off cast and sinners though they be, it does not raise us above a mere empty profession that leaves us scarcely less than hypocrites. The religion that does not induce us to do this essential work of a true Christian cannot save us.
I don’t know what the days ahead hold for us as a community of faith in the part of this city where Ebola has made its American debut. I am inclined to believe the assurances we are being given that everything is under control and that the situation is contained and being managed. But even if that’s true for here and now, it’s not true for “there” – West Africa – and it’s far from certain for “then” – the coming days both in Dallas, Texas, and throughout the global community.
It is only natural for us as human beings to worry about our personal safety and to think about the frightening possibilities when a threat the size of Ebola moves into the neighborhood. But as Christians, our personal safety and continuing well-being cannot be our only consideration. “The love of Christ constrains us,” and that strips “W.W.J.D.” from being a snappy slogan on a bumper sticker or a tee shirt, and positions it in our hearts as the critical and urgent question of our commitment to follow Christ. “What would Jesus do?” DBS+
These fatal scourges, under God, become opportunities to show the superior excellence of the Christian religion, in giving true courage, love and self-sacrifice to its votaries. Alas what is it judged by the course of a majority of its professors? What do we better than others, in these days of sorrowful visitation?
~ David Lipscomb