Many of us are watching anxiously what is happening in Mexico as the country battens down to hopefully ride out the Swine flu epidemic which many are saying could become a deadly worldwide pandemic. Some seem to be treating it as a bit of a game as they follow the spread on google maps. Others are taking simple precautions to reduce the spread. Others of course are already panicking, stockpiling food and heading for the hills if they can.
The question that revolves in my mind is “How should Christians respond?” How can we be God’s light shining into the midst of the darkness?
For many of us our response needs to start with our theology and our perspective of God in the midst of this. Does God care for people who are already suffering and dying from this disease?
God does care. From the time the children of Israel came out of Egypt God showed concern for their physical as well as their spiritual well being. However God’s prescription for health was always very different from that of the surrounding cultures.
Central to God’s model of health and wholeness is reconciliation. Healing depended not only on the taking of medicine but primarily on obedience to God’s word and commandments. Many of the Levitical laws are good preventative health directives that still work today . These regulations include nutrition, environmental laws and behavior – the three primary factors that influence the health of any community. They also include basic health measures like the washing of hands which is still one of the basic things that we all need to do to reduce the spread of this disease. Others are guidelines for how the most vulnerable in society are to be cared for and at the moment of course it is the people in Mexico who are the most vulnerable and I think that part of our response needs to be “How can we be God’s hands of healing and compassion in the midst of this.?”
Interestingly the Greek word most commonly translated save in the New Testament SOZO can also be translated heal. It means to heal, preserve, save, make whole. Healing from a Christian perspective is the process of moving towards wholeness in body, soul and spirit. The purpose of medicine is to support and encourage human wholeness in every respect.
I think it is good to remind ourselves at a time like this that nothing speaks more highly of God’s desire for healing than the incredible systems of protection and repair within our own bodies. The immune system cures most of the illnesses that attack us. In fact the mere fact that many of the people infected by the H1N1 strain of flu have died is due to the miracle of God’s healing processes, a miracle we rarely think about unless something goes wrong At best doctors and nurses assist God’s healing work yet we rarely thank God for these miracles.
Unfortunately in our imperfect world, corrupted by sin and disease, these systems don’t always work but God provided other elements to assist the healing process. Most modern medicines originate from medicinal plants and herbs that are a part of God’s wonderful creation.
The Cross is probably the most powerful symbol of and power for healing in the world. Its redeeming and transforming power brings healing to body soul and spirit – and beyond that it brings healing to communities, and eventually will bring healing to our entire broken world.
The taking of communion is another powerful symbol of healing. In many churches healing services are Eucharistic, deliberately linking our need for healing to confession, repentance and forgiveness. (1 Cor 11:27-34) Baptism too, because it infuses a person with new life, the life of Christ, can drive out before it all the powers of sickness and death. (Rom 6: 1-14)
James 5:13-16 lists other important symbols of healing we need to pay attention to. Praying for the sick, often associated with laying on of hands, anointing with oil, singing psalms and hymns, confession and forgiveness are all practices that can encourage the healing process.
Observing the liturgical calendar is another way that God’s people can find God’s healing:
By connecting to the seasons of the church year we enter into a rhythm that focuses every day and every season very intentionally on the One who gives all of life meaning and purpose. By celebrating through the structures of the Church we actually are given the forms we need to become whole and we are given the formulas to make whole every human experience.
I am always challenged by the fact that in pandemics that have swept through the world throughout history it is usually the Christians that have been at the forefront of response. In the aftermath of the Black Death of the 1300s there were not enough priests to shepherd the people partly because many of the monks and priests had looked after the sick and the dying at the risk of there own lives. Just this last week we watch the film about the story of another priest – Father Damien – who worked amongst lepers on the island of Molokai until he himself developed leprosy.
It is probable that this strain of flu may not hit our communities in the same way that it is already impacting parts of Mexico but I feel that it is never too soon to think about what our response could be. How in the midst of the devastation that is already being created can we be God’s compassionate response and show the world that there is indeed a loving and caring God who desires to embrace all who are suffering and in pain.