The novel coronavirus has gotten into my extended family already. As a pastor, I was asked for a message specifically about living through this horrible time right now. The Scripture passage that came to mind first is Jesus praying with his disciples in Gethsemane, found in Mark 14, among other places.
First, a word about what I will not be saying—what should not be said about this story—because it would be a distortion: To those who are currently showing symptoms of COVID-19, you may indeed be praying for this cup to pass from you, but you are not Jesus in the Garden, and it is not God’s will that you suffer in this way. If anybody’s “helpful” comments start to stray in that direction, stop listening. The Gospel-writers tell of Jesus’ last days like this so that people would believe he was fully human yet fully God. And even though those things conflicted inside of him, he submitted to follow the path that led to self-sacrifice, defeating death for humankind with God’s overpowering love for us. You are not asked to do that. You do not need to plead with God for your survival or submit to this disease, because it is not God’s will that you be sick. No way. God loves you so very much and doesn’t want you to suffer.
The message I would like to share is for the ones surrounding those who are suffering, like my cousin, whose husband is sick. Your loved ones have COVID-19, so not only might you have it too, but you are deep in fear and worry for the ones you love. Like Jesus’ disciples on the night they prayed in the Garden, you are carrying the mental, emotional and spiritual anguish of what is already in motion. Jesus’ life is at stake, and maybe so are the disciples’ lives for being associated with him. What does Jesus ask of them? To watch and pray. Instead, they sleep. And I cannot blame them.
Look, it is physically and emotionally exhausting to be this worried—for our loved ones and for ourselves. To have no idea what is going to happen, not only in the long-term, but in the near-term. I know you are worn out. Your brain is foggy. You have no filter. You do not have the capacity to deal with people who send you a nasty e-mail or burst out in anger because you came into contact with them last week, before you knew. So don’t open those messages. Block the trolls indefinitely, because—God knows—all you can handle right now is to watch and pray. God knows that, and God holds you too, along with your beloved one who is suffering. The Spirit intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words to express (Romans 8:26). That is a promise of love. Let the Spirit do her work; we can only do these two things right now, if even that: watch and pray.
Now I realize that Jesus sounds supremely frustrated when he repeatedly finds the disciples asleep while he’s pouring his heart out to God. “Could you not keep awake one hour?” he says, “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Well, that’s the voice we are hearing in our heads right now. You who maybe are not facing the threat directly, why can’t you get it together and do what needs doing? Rise to the challenge! Be the one Jesus can lean on!
When the reality is that our strength right now is severely limited by grief and fear. This moment in Scripture foreshadows the rest of the Jesus Movement. All God has for spreading the good news—that God who is for us even when everyone else is against us—are human beings who are going to mess it up a lot. We cannot even manage to stay awake, to watch and pray. Yet somehow, God will work. Through all the tiny things one or the other of us manages to do right in the coming days, God will work.
Through supporting and listening to those like medical and public health professionals who have trained for this. By sticking to the two things we can (maybe) manage: watch and pray. We deserve the rebukes, certainly, but also know that Jesus is going to keep coming back for wake-up calls. He’s going to keep checking in, like we are trying to do right now for the people we know who are scared and maybe symptomatic or worried that they might be. It may indeed be frustrating, and we keep speaking sternly to our elders telling them to stay home, for heaven’s sake. But like Jesus, we keep circling back out of love. We are all trying to navigate this fear and sadness and uncertainty together. And God is with us. God hears you and holds you, while you watch and pray.
We will watch and pray with you.