To be honest, as I’m writing it, this post seems ill-advised.
After all, putting your opinions out there into the ether on social flash-points like the current worldwide plague is just asking for trouble–at least, if you don’t toe the party line of those holding the levers of power. It’s double-trouble if you don’t fall squarely into one faction or another, because then partisans from both sides are incensed, for opposing reasons.
My best bet is that I’m enough of an internet nobody that this will be just another little bubble blipping through the raging ocean of online content, unremarkable and unworthy of much attention.
Why do it, then?, you may ask. Fair question. To be honest, this is a generally-available post that is written with a few specific people in mind who may be curious/concerned about what this internet nobody thinks on the matter. Rather than simply send an email or make a phone call, I figured this would be a good way to get my thoughts out in a cohesive manner; plus, it might be an interesting bit of reading for someone outside of that small circle. Or perhaps I sub-consciously crave the sturm und drang of rage-comments from angry internet trolls, because my prideful little heart loves those sweet, sweet traffic spikes.
Whatever the motivation, here we are and here we go. (And, as my favorite former blogger and Calvinist gadfly would sometimes say, “pack a lunch.”)
“Before the dark times… before the Empire…”
When the coronavirus pandemic broke bad last February/March, I took it seriously and was rather concerned. After all, so little was known about how the virus spread, but the numbers spiked pretty quickly, it seemed. I checked the Johns Hopkins C19 dashboard at least daily, if not a few times a day, ruefully noting where the increases popped up (and side-eyeing China’s numbers that magically seemed to level off to zero for no explainable reason…). It reached a point where I realized I was checking it multiple times a day and letting those increases in the totals weigh more and more heavily on my heart.
I was also anxious for my own family. As infections began to grow in the US, and we learned that comorbidities like high blood pressure (check) and morbid obesity (double-check) contributed to higher rates of hospitalization and death, I knew that I had unwittingly set myself to be in the danger zone if I ever caught the disease. Add to that the knowledge that several of my loved ones faced the same dangers.
Even though the infection rates and death rates were not as sweeping as past epidemics and pandemics had been, we also didn’t really know where the ceiling was or what if anything could be done. The messaging coming from the medical establishment and national and local governments were inconsistent at best in those early months and downright insane on some days (two words: disinfectant infusions). The common thread (eventually) became pretty clear: keep your distance, wash your hands, wear a mask, limit outside contact.
This seemed sensible to me. While some people immediately started decrying governmental over-reach and questioned the reality of the virus (often with statements like “Do you actually KNOW anyone who has gotten really sick?”), as best as I could tell, these instructions made logical sense. (In fact, I appreciated finding a Martin Luther quote from the Black Plague (?) era in which he advised a friend to do pretty much the same things.) Even if the ultimate usefulness of masking may have been in question, my thought was that even a 10% “buff” on protection from spreading or inhaling viral particles was worth the relatively minor inconvenience and discomfort of masking up.
I heard more and more stories of people who refused to wear masks when they were in public. I didn’t think it made sense to refuse the mask when going into a private business that requested it; after all, as a conservative, I think businesses should have the right to mandate or not mandate such things. If we don’t think bakers should be strong-armed into “baking the cake,” then other businesses shouldn’t be strong-armed into enforcing the mask or not. Thats seemed to me to be the most consistent conservative position on the issue. (Spoiler alert: It still does, I think.)
Thing is, I wasn’t just making these decisions for me or my family.
Shepherding a Divided Flock
I’m an elder at my church, so my understanding of the virus and its implications had ripple effects that extended beyond my household and into my church family.
A big part of our discussions in the “elder room” (okay, it’s just a conference room in the church building but “elder room” sounds cooler, doesn’t it?) was weighing the conflicts between honoring the consciences and concerns of those who were opposed to mask-wearing and those who were in high-risk groups and had serious anxieties about being around unmasked people. We knew there were a lot of conflicting voices outside of our church (from various pastors, bloggers, and parachurch ministries) who were speaking into the lives of our congregants in very dogmatic ways. Even pastors and theologians whom I’ve admired for years were coming out with what I consider to be some really reckless statements over the course of the last year. In other words, we weren’t the only people discipling our flock, so we had to be able to address the questions that other teachers were raising in the minds of our folks.
In the end, we felt we didn’t have the luxury of being so dogmatic about this issue as those outside voices were (and are). Early on, we only had a few folks who got sick, but by God’s grace, we were able to open up after just a month or two of online-only “services,” with distancing and masking protocols in place. (Add this to the fact that we had literally just merged two churches into one, with our first week “together” having to be cancelled at the start of the pandemic lockdowns.) We recommended masks but tried to make allowances for medical or conscience issues contravening mask usage. We had frequent meetings and phone calls and emails from each side of the debate, informing us how we should act and how we could better serve their needs. There were misunderstandings and mis-statements that caused confusion and hurt feelings. It was a very hard season. (Point of fact, it still is a very hard season.) Through it all, we tried to meet the disparate needs of many folks, not perfectly, but as best as we could. We tried to keep a level head, look at the data available, and make the best decision we could.
Of course, things took an interesting turn when a good portion of our church family got Covid (including me).
Sidebar #1: No, it’s not just the flu.
I got sick just before Christmas. In God’s undeserved mercy, I was not so sick that I needed to be hospitalized, though the risk factors were certainly there. But getting Covid definitely proved the assertion that “it’s just the flu” is a complete lie.
How is Covid-19 different than the flu? 1) It’s slower to reveal itself, which means it’s easier to infect other people before your symptoms become apparent; 2) It hits harder than the flu does; I had both in 2020, and while the flu is nasty, Covid is worse; and 3) It lingers longer than the flu does. My flu experience was a rough 1-2 weeks, all told. My Covid experience? A week-plus of primary symptoms and then a solid 4-6 weeks of greatly diminished lung capacity. That stinker just HUNG ON for weeks. I was starting to get nervous that I was one of those cases where the disease doesn’t get better for months, before finally I started to get my wind back. And who knows, there may still be some long-term health issues that can be traced back to it. My lungs are always sensitive, so this certainly doesn’t help.
Look, if you had a different experience, and Covid was easy for you, I’m very happy for you. Sincerely. Because getting Covid stinks. But I need to emphasize that your mild experience was your. mild. experience. It’s unwise to extrapolate that everyone else is making too much of it because it was no big deal for you (just as it would be unwise for someone with a really bad experience to assume it’s always that way).
Returning to Normal?
Our church suffered a minor outbreak at the end of 2020, and we didn’t freak out. We didn’t roll everything back to how it was at the beginning. We didn’t change our masking policy. We just made the decision to shut down for 2 weeks to give the infections a chance to burn out a bit. We reopened after that, and have been open ever since.
As we have watched the local infection rates go down and vaccine injection rates go up, we’ve gradually made the decision to return our services to more normal settings–not as fast as some would have liked (and faster than others would have preferred). Rather than having the “mask-only” and “mask-recommended” folks meet in different buildings on campus, we now have “masked” sections in our main hall, so that we’re all under one roof. We’ve also changed our stance from mask-recommended to mask-optional (oh, how I have learned the importance of semantics this past year!). We don’t disparage or discourage people from wearing masks if they feel they need to for medical safety, but we don’t require or encourage it anymore. We are also actively pursuing members who are still staying away from the corporate gathering and encouraging them more and more to return to gather with us again. Our hope in the coming year is that we will soon be back to normal, with everyone who is physically able to attend joining with us each Sunday in worship.
It hasn’t always been easy. There are still some difficult conversations to have and some relationships that were bruised by these debates that need to be restored. We’re hopeful that God will heal what’s been wounded in our church family, as he is doing in so many other churches all over the world.
Jab, Jab, Uppercut.
One pain point that still gets discussed has to do with vaccines. So let’s go ahead and go there.
I got the jab. I looked at the available data, tried to filter out the hysteria, and made the best decision I could for myself and my family. A vaccine is not a silver bullet or a promise that I will never get infected (as evidenced by the fact that I still got the flu after getting last year’s flu vaccine). But based on the available data, this was the sensible thing for me to do, and I expect it will be a positive for me from this point forward. And, like masking, I used my best judgment to decide that there was sufficient information about vaccine safety, and I was okay with the level of risk versus level of benefit.
(And if you’ve got a meme or graphic to send me proving that I’m wrong, hang on, because I’m coming to you in a minute.)
I know that vaccines aren’t for everyone. I get that. There are people I know and care about who have made a different decision. That’s fine, as long as it’s being made with clear eyes and isn’t driven by misinformation and half-baked conspiracy theories. I don’t think it should be compulsory for any reason (especially for church participation). I think it’s paramount to uphold individual autonomy in the subject of invasive preventative medical interventions. And I completely reject the notion of “vaccine passports” or some sort of social pressure to force people to violate their consciences on this issue.
I’ve been asked recently how my opinion on vaccine mandates is consistent with my previous adherence to enforced/encouraged masking (with the person asking the question suggesting that masks are themselves a medical intervention)? My response was/is that masks and vaccines are both medical interventions in the same way that EKGs and arterial stents are both medical interventions; one is quite a bit more invasive than the other. You can put on and take off a mask if necessary. You can’t unvaccinate yourself (no matter how much the heavy-handed rhetoric of certain pols almost makes me wish I could). So, I think it’s consistent to say, in certain contexts, it’s reasonable that a private business or an assembly (such as a church) can recommend wearing a mask, but it’s unreasonable that a permanent action like vaccination should be required for the same access.
Again, you may disagree (and you’re free to do so respectfully in the comments). That’s fine. But that’s where I’m at.
Sidebar #2: Live Not By Memes.
I’ve seen a LOT of Covid-related memes online. A LOT of them. And I’m gonna be honest, y’all: most of them are flat-out ignorant, but are still passed around by some very smart, very thoughtful people as if they were gospel truth.
Can I ask you, exhort you, plead with you to do just this one thing, whenever you see a crazy infographic revealing the TRUTH about COVID or VACCINES or whatever else? Here’s the one thing: Do more research than a single Google search result. Look at multiple sites. Look at the arguments for and against. Seek out primary sources. Do something more than just simply hitting “share.” If you see an infographic on Facebook that delivers a DEVASTATING blow to the other side of the argument, stop and dig into who made the graphic and who they represent. Yes, that would make it a lot slower and more time-consuming for you to share the thing you want to share; that’s the point and it’s a good thing.
Over this last year, I’ve seen a lot of folks suddenly turn into full-fledged epidemiologists and geneticists practically overnight. (It’s amazing how efficient med schools are these days at turning out medical experts.) At least, you’d think that, the way folks sling around their “insider” information.
Maybe, just maybe, it would be good to season your argumentation and meme-sharing with some caution and humility. Otherwise, you not only make yourself look foolish, but you run the risk of lying to your neighbor by sharing a half-truth you haven’t verified.
It’s well past time to start being an honest witness about this issue.
Oh, one more thing: If you use the derogatory slur “face diaper” in reference to masks, you’re being a jerk. Stop it. The implication is gross and demeaning. You’re not being clever; you’re being base. Cut it out. (By the way, any comments on my post using that phrase intentionally will be deleted, with no apologies. Fair warning.)
Breaking The Old Law.
As the “two weeks to flatten the curve” became an ongoing succession of months, with the infection charts showing a run of peaks and valleys, I wondered if we’d ever turn the corner. I began listening to more of the opposing voices, questioning some of the statements and decisions of those in power. I started to wonder if maybe there was more going on than an imperfect but well-intended response to a challenging public health crisis. (If you’re hoping or dreading that I’m about to go full conspiracy theorist at this point, you will be slightly disappointed.)
While I firmly believe that Covid-19 is a real virus, different than a typical flu, that has killed hundreds of thousands in the US and millions abroad, I find myself agreeing with the critics that some of the responses from governmental authorities have been heavy-handed, opportunistic, and based in fear or psychology instead of epidemiology. Early on, we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and caution was warranted. As more information and experience was gained, it became clear that the decision-making of many state and national (and international) leaders was too heavily influenced by political pressures and the desire for greater social control than by consistent, evidence-based reasoning. (No, I’m not even going to engage in the Gr**t R*s*t discussion. Stop that.) As is often the case, the more power a government has, the more it wants to retain that power. It’s just human nature.
So, as the pandemic approached its first anniversary, I was becoming more and more restless about the restrictions in place. Thankfully, we live in a state that is more predisposed to freedom and personal responsibility, with a state government that stays out of the way of church functions and encourages businesses to flourish. (Some call this “neanderthal thinking”; all we have to say to that is, “Scoreboard.”)
Once the vaccine data started being released this spring and certain medical “experts” and politicians were still saying that, despite the actual data on protection, masking should still be encouraged, it became clearer that a certain degree of this cultural push was, if not theatrical, at least more symbolic than interventional. Finally, the CDC announced what the data had already clearly established: vaccination gives you virtual (not perfect, but pretty close) immunity, so masking is now unnecessary. (Crazy–that almost sounds like a certain governor from Florida…weird!)
What’s funny is how that doesn’t seem to make much difference to some folks. I was struck by this last Sunday. I had to run some errands after church, including going to 2 different grocery stores. I had my mask in my pocket, but wasn’t going to put it on unless completely necessary. I checked the front doors of each business, looking for a corporate mask policy, but saw only that masking was recommended, not required, per the recent CDC update.
I walked in, beard-faced (as God intended), and I noticed something that shouldn’t have been shocking but was: almost everyone was still wearing a mask. It was a bit unnerving, to be honest. I mean, statistically, almost half of the folks in the stores have been vaccinated. Why are they still doing this? I was half-tempted to start asking people why they were still masking. Instead, I just tried to smile in a friendly way at every single person I made eye contact with, as if to say, “C’mon, it’s okay, you can take the mask off.” I even made sure to have a few brief conversations with the masked employees there, thanking them for their assistance.
At this point, I suspect some of you reading are smiling and nodding, because this is what you’ve been saying all along: the masking was all about Controlling the Population!!! This was all a SCAM! Etc. Etc. Etc.
I’m not going to go there with you. I still think masking and distancing provide some limited benefits (this is one reason why I think it’s totally understandable that the influenza rates have plummetted this year–not because they’re being miscategorized as Covid, but because we’ve added a certain set of behaviors that drastically minimizes the spread of droplet-borne illnesses!). But I think this kind of anecdotal evidence does point to something true about human behavior: We hang onto what’s familiar, even if it doesn’t make sense, because breaking a habit is hard.
When I walked into a store without a mask, for the first time in over a year, my heart was racing a little bit, because I had internalized the idea that doing so was somehow wrong, that it was some kind of social sin. It makes me wonder if this is a little bit like how Jewish converts to Christianity in the first century felt when they realized that the things formerly “unclean” for them were now acceptable. (It’s probably a terrible analogy, but just go with me.) There was that little bit of trepidation and uncertainty there, along with that unspoken expectation and hesitancy as if you’re waiting for someone to swoop down and smite you for breaking the rules. It makes me appreciate Paul’s sensitivity in encouraging the church to bear with those with weak consciences who were still processing their exit from the old system of rule-keeping.
All this to say, I think it’s going to be a little while before we as a society actually do get back to normal behavior, if it’s ever going to happen. Part of that process is going to require gentle encouragement of the fearful that it’s okay to step out into the sun and breathe a little freer. I think we can get there. I hope we can.
There’s more to say, I’m sure, but I feel like I’ve said enough for now.
Okay, maybe one more thing: One big takeaway from all of this is that I’ve frustrated a lot of people this past year, and I feel okay about that. I’ve tried to avoid mere tribalism when it came to all of these issues. I’ve tried to learn what I could, listen carefully and critically to people on both sides, and lead my family and my church in a way that was consistent, careful, and wise. I didn’t always do it perfectly, but I sought to do my best in that regard, and that made more than a few people frustrated.
I joke with my wife that I feel like I’m a bit too liberal for my really conservative friends and much too conservative for my really liberal friends. This pandemic year has been no different. (I wonder if one or two of you reading have thought this very thing–what can I say, I like to keep you on your toes.)
If anything, this experience is helping me learn not to be afraid of other people’s opinions. It would do me good to grow a thicker skin. Still more work to do on that front, but, hey, that’s what blog comments are for.
See you in the com box.