Coronavirus has impacted us all. Bishop David Bard explores the nature of fear and the human response to it. He concludes, “So, maybe Easter is about both fear and joy.”
BISHOP DAVID BARD
Michigan Area United Methodist Church
There was a moment a few days ago, a powerful moment when an overwhelming feeling flooded through me. I felt I was having a dream, a deeply unpleasant dream, about a contagious virus sweeping our country, creating a situation in which we needed to confine ourselves to our homes as much as possible. It was that moment in the dream when you know you are dreaming and are just about to wake up, glad that it was only a dream. The moment did not last long, and I realized that this was no dream. Instead, it is the world we are living in. I wish it were only a bad dream.
Fifteen years ago, a writer named John Barry published a best-selling book about the 1918 flu epidemic, The Great Influenza. In an afterward, Barry posed challenging questions for the future. “Virologists and public health officials consider new pandemics almost inevitable” (451). How well prepared might we be, Barry asked. “At this writing, we are not prepared. At all.” (454)
Hauntingly, Barry identifies issues we face right now. We have fewer hospital beds per capita today than there were during the Hong Kong flu outbreak in the late 1960s. There is an insufficient supply of mechanical respirators. “During a pandemic, most people who needed a mechanical respirator would not get one.” (453) Barry wondered when something like this might happen. We need to wonder no longer. We are living in such an unprecedented and incredible time.
The coronavirus and COVID-19 have had a significant impact on us all. Our daily lives have been interrupted, our patterns of coming and going, of working and socializing. I remain tremendously grateful for the creativity and energy Michigan United Methodists are showing as we seek to be in ministry in new ways in this time of “stay home, stay safe.” Thank you.
This virus and this disease touch us all. In my family, our son-in-law, a German physician, is quarantined at home with COVID-19. Thankfully his symptoms have been manageable. Our daughter, his wife, is also a physician (OB/GYN) who worries about the lack of personal protective equipment as she does her job in Minneapolis. Our daughter Sarah continues to work with patients as a physical therapist. In the Michigan Conference, we have a retired pastor who has COVID-19.
In the face of this pandemic, we experience a range of emotions. There are moments of joy and tenderness. Today as I worked from home, I saw two children stop at the walk leading up to the house. They wrote in chalk: “Stay safe.” “Be the good people.” They included smiley faces. There are stories of courage and grace. We also experience more difficult emotions – anger, grief, and fear. We are understandably frustrated by the deep interruptions of our lives. We grieve the loss we are experiencing. We fear what we know, that this is a severe and contagious virus. We fear what we don’t know. How susceptible are we? How will this affect our livelihoods? How long will we have to stay at home to stay safe?
Fear. Fear is a powerful human emotion, “the earliest in human life” and the “most broadly shared within the animal kingdom” (Martha Nussbaum, The Monarchy of Fear, 24). Fear has some usefulness in alerting us to danger. “Fear makes us want to avoid disaster” (Nussbaum, 44). If a little bit of fear helps us wash our hands, avoid touching our faces, and keeps us at safe distances from one another, it is a good thing. At the same time, fear tends to diminish creativity, narrow our thinking, and lead to blaming over problem-solving. It can do so even when we deny our fearfulness.
For such reasons, I have often spoken against fear, but I’ve had to do a bit of re-thinking. Not long ago, I read these lines in a poem by William Stafford. “What you fear/will not go away: it will take you into/yourself and bless you and keep you.” The line puzzled and intrigued me. How can what begins with fear take me into myself to bless and keep me?
Just days ago, this on-line essay by the pastor, writer, theologian Patricia Adams Farmer, came to me by way of Facebook, “Fear: Not My Favorite Spiritual Companion.” She writes in light of our current crisis. “Fear. If you’re feeling it, you’re normal. You’re paying attention.” She goes on to write that while fear is not her favorite spiritual companion, it has a place in our lives. “On occasion, we need a good shout from fear’s megaphone to strike through our complacency, and very possibly save our lives…. We would do well to take a deep breath and widen our souls to make room for this difficult companion.”
Yet Easter is just around the corner, a day when fear seems entirely out of place. In Matthew’s gospel, the women arrive at the tomb only to be greeted by an angel. “Do not be afraid; I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” Later we read: “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!… Do not be afraid.”
Fear seems to have some important place in our lives, though it can quickly get out of hand and become harmful. Perhaps that is why Jesus tells us, “do not be afraid.” Yet it seems an unrealistic request. I appreciate Parker Palmer’s take on this. “‘Be not afraid’ does not mean we cannot have fear…. Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have.” (Let Your Life Speak, 93, 94)
So maybe Easter is about both fear and great joy, the experience of the women who first witnessed the resurrection. There are things in the world to be afraid of, but fear should never be our default or defining emotion and experience of the world, even now, even with the coronavirus wreaking havoc on our lives. When we can listen to our own fear, we might be better able to listen to the fears of others and reach out with compassion. If that’s the case, our fear can be taken inside and can bless us and keep us and help us bless others. We will know fear, but not be fear.
Patricia Adams Farmer writes about this beautifully. “Fear may be our companion, a needed companion during times of war and natural disasters, but there is more – – so much more. May we take a breath of hope, not to rid ourselves of all fear, but simply to calm the loud and noisy clamor. Then take another breath of compassion for the world and its troubles…. Invite fear in for a conversation. Sit with it. Listen to it. Then, respond with honesty and self-compassion. After a time, let it go to the backseat of your mind while you breathe and smile for all that is still good and true and beautiful in the world.”
When Easter arrives, we will still be sequestered in our homes. I will be working with Michigan Conference Communications to produce an Easter service that will be available on-line if you would like to use it on Easter Sunday or the Sunday following). When Easter arrives, know that feeling your fear is o.k. It is pretty normal right now. Yet keep fear in a much smaller place in your soul than you nurture compassion, tenderness, joy, hope, and love. Easter is, after all, about a God whose love overcomes even death, and a faith rooted in Easter is a trust that compassion, tenderness, joy, hope, and love are much better ways to be in the world than to be the fear we feel.