Refiner’s fire 3: plague

When the big lighted ball dropped in Times Square to mark the beginning of the year 2020, who would have thought that in just a few weeks we would be embroiled in a worldwide pandemic that so far has infected more than 8 million people and killed more than 440,000, and that fully one quarter of the confirmed cases and one-quarter of the deaths have occurred in the United States, which supposedly has the finest health care system in the world?

It’s a plague nobody saw coming, and some people still live in denial. It’s all a hoax, some say. It’s way overblown, others contend. These folks will continue to live with their heads in the sand until someone close to them dies, and then they’ll look for somebody to blame for their ignorance.

After one plague came signs of another: the murder of George Floyd, witnessed by millions of in a grim and surreal video. There followed national unrest and even riots, and an outlandishly authoritarian response from the power elite in the White House.

Three viruses stalk America today: the coronavirus, the virus of racism and the virus of authoritarianism. I call these the viruses of plague, prejudice and power. They are an unholy trinity that mocks our triune God.

In this time of turmoil and fear, I believe that God is acting in our midst. God is using these viruses to refine us by fire. God is calling us to turn away from our racist, power-mad, and plague-prone ways, and turn toward a God-shaped life.

If you believe in omens, here are two more: huge wildfires in Arizona, and a giant cloud of dust being carried more than 5,000 miles over the Atlantic Ocean from the Sahara Desert. It will make landfall in this country early in the week. By that time, you may not be able to see it, but it may still affect your breathing when you go outdoors.

These are symbolic clouds of despair. No wonder mental health experts are worried. It’s trauma on top of trauma, says one. * Depression and anxiety are common. By one measure, Americans have not been this unhappy since 1972.*

Trauma upon trauma, crisis upon crisis. Some observers think that we are near a tipping point. Good things could result, or catastrophe. It all depends on how we react in the days ahead. Will we repent and turn to God? Will we continue to flounder under inept leadership? Or will even worse things happen?

Many people have turned to reading the pass the time during their lockdown. I am a constant reader; I devour 50 or 60 books every year. So when a plague comes, what does a onetime English major on track to being an English teacher turn to but one of the classics of plague literature? That is the novel The Plague by Albert Camus.

Other people had the same idea. The Johnson County Library has only a couple of electronic copies of The Plague to lend out, and I was sixth in line to borrow one.

Camus was an underground journalist with the French resistance during World War II. He emerged as a major literary figure and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. Some people called him an existentialist, or an absurdist. However you label him, he was fiercely committed to the idea that every person has to construct a meaningful life from the chaos that surrounds us most of the time.

I first read The Plague a long time ago, and I was surprised how much of it I remembered. It’s plainly written but has an oddly poetic and timeless feel to it, and it’s filled with striking images. The story is set sometime after 1947, when the book was published, in the city of Oran on the northwestern coast of Algeria.

It starts when someone sees a dead rat. Soon dead rats are everywhere, hundreds of them – and then people start getting sick. City leaders dilly-dally and then try to cover up their inaction. When it’s impossible to deny the truth anymore, the city comes under strict quarantine. No one gets in or out for a long time. People die by the thousands. Their bodies are carted away at night and thrown into mass graves.

The quarantine leads to feelings of disconnect and discontent. People begin to waste away emotionally as well as physically. They can’t think of death all the time, Camus says, so they think of nothing. Some become, in Camus’ words, “allergic to hope in any form.”

The main characters are a young doctor named Rieux and some of his friends. My favorite of the friends is Grand. Grand says he’s writing a novel, but he can’t get past the first sentence. He obsesses over the wording. It has to be perfect, and he has rewritten this sentence many times. He’s also estranged from his wife, who now lives in another city, and he wants to write to tell of his love for her, but he just can’t find the right words.

Then there’s Father Paneloux, a stuffy Jesuit priest. Camus devotes a lot of attention to two sermons that Peneloux preaches. In the first, he says that God has called down plague upon them to get their attention, so it will be a good thing if it opens their eyes and makes them think and drives them to repent.

In the second sermon, he’s not so sure. He knows only that God controls everything, so if the plague kills innocent people, people must accept that as God’s chastisement. He says this right after he has witnessed the horrible death of a child. You can feel how deeply he is struggling. He is certain that God is in control, but he’s also certain of God’s grace. He cannot reconcile the two ideas.

Camus is an atheist, so he offers no solution to that quandary, or any other. If you want your life to have any meaning, he says, you’ve got to make it yourself. You’ve got to construct meaning yourself by the way you live and the way you love.

Everyone has the plague, Camus says. It’s death itself. Sooner or later, something will kill you. That’s your personal plague. The question is how you live before the plague gets you. Do you live with an attitude that is worse that the plague itself? Or do you live with hope and compassion for others?

Some people, Camus says, are “content to live only for the day alone under the vast indifference of the sky.” If you’re familiar with the book of Ecclesiastes, you’ll find that this is a familiar thought. “Vanity of vanities,” says the Teacher. “What do people gain from all their toil under the sun?”

Ecclesiastes is more a short essay than a full-fledged book of the Bible. But 27 times in this short essay, the Teacher uses the phrase “under the sun.” It’s his catch-phrase for hopeless living, life without God. It feels just like Camus’ notion of living for the day under the vast indifference of the sky. Living without God is like living under the hot sun and the vast indifference of the sky.

I think Camus and the Teacher of Ecclesiastes would have gotten along well. Both saw through the shallow illusion of worldly success. Both yearned for more. The Teacher finally concludes, “So this is the end of the matter … Worship God and keep God’s commandments because this is what everyone must do” (Ecclesiastes 12:13 CEB). Camus could come to no such conclusion.

I hope that the parallels between Camus’ fictional plague and our very-real pandemic are obvious. How many hundred thousand lives would have been saved if cowardly politicians in several nations had moved more quickly against the virus rather than denying that a problem existed and then lying to cover themselves?

How many lives are devastated when economies are shut down and people can’t work? How many lives are saved when we hunker down separately? How many people go just a little crazy when they can’t be around other people for extended periods?

Our pandemic is far from over. “This is just the beginning,” says the author of one study of the disease. * Thousands more will die, some of them our neighbors and friends and relatives. We are tired of this thing, but one health official says, “The virus doesn’t care that we’re tired. It’s still out there.” *

Eventually, one way or another, we’ll get through this. Many more people will die because of the casual stupidity of public officials or individuals who rebel against public health warnings. The coronavirus will either slink away, or we will build up immunity against it. This crisis will be over, and we’ll move on to the next crisis that we never saw coming, or maybe one like global warming that we have seen coming for a long time but we have chosen to ignore.

Will we have changed in the meantime? Will we find meaning in our plague experience, as Camus says we must? Or will be blindly blunder on, oblivious to the opportunity for growth that we missed?

“We are at a turning point historically,” many voices are saying. This may be a crucial moment that we remember as BP and AP, as in “Before Pandemic” and “After Pandemic.” Or maybe it’s BGF and AGF, as in “Before George Floyd” and “After George Floyd.”

Some people want to return to normal, whatever they think that is. Others say we can never return to normal because what some of us think of as normal never really existed for so many people. After the George Floyd murder, we cannot return to our racist normal. After the White House attack on peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square, we cannot return to authoritarian business as usual. After this coronavirus pandemic, we cannot return to reckless living with no care for the consequences. It’s time for change.

The sun rises and the sun goes down. The wind blows this way and then that. Water flows into the sea but the sea never fills up. It’s all so wearisome, says the Teacher of Ecclesiastes. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun.”

Or is there? In Isaiah 43:19 God tells the prophet: “I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”

God can do a new thing in our midst, and God will, if we let the Holy Spirit work in us and through us. We have reached a place where there is no going back. We either go forward or we perish. We go with God, or we die under the vast indifference of the sky. Which shall it be?

I invite you to journey with me, not under the hot sun that shines down on us from the sky, but under the gentle and healing warmth of God’s Son shining out from hearts enlivened by the Holy Spirit. I invite you to a life with God, free from evil viruses and free for all.


* Notes:

“Trauma on top of trauma” – Paul Gionfriddo, president of Mental Health America

“By one measure” – study by NORC (National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago

“Just the beginning”– Samir Bhatt, senior author of a study by the Imperial College London

“We’re tired already” – Francis S. Collings, director of the National Institutes of Health


This message was presented online to Edgerton United Methodist Church on June 21, 2020, the Third Sunday After Pentecost, from Ecclesiastes 1.2-9.          

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