Giving Thanks in a Pandemic

Imagine a plague so severe that 8000 citizens of one town would die in a year. That same town was threatened by an invading army. Soldiers commandeered scarce resources of food and household goods. Many of the people had not known a time of peace and prosperity in all their lives.

Pastor Martin Rinckart remained faithful to his surviving congregation in the German town of Eilenburg during this desperate time. Many of his fellow ministers had died in the plague and he had to do the work of three men. Day after day he found himself conducting funerals. There were so many deaths that eventually victims had to buried in mass graves without proper committal services.

Refugees from the Thirty Years’ War flooded the overcrowded fortress town. Imagine the scene: starving neighbors fighting in the streets over scraps of garbage and even for the remnants of dead animals. Anything for a little food. Rinckart himself had to mortgage his future income to try to obtain bread and clothes for his children. His wife died in the plague in 1637.

Last Sunday morning my friend Dr. Mike Philliber told the amazing story of Martin Rinckart. It applies to our present national emergency. If we feel the inconvenience, disruption, loss, illness, or worse, of the pandemic, the example of this devout Lutheran pastor can inspire us to remain faithful to our Savior and to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Amid his own unimaginable sorrows, Rinckart taught his children to take refuge in God and to be thankful for the blessings they still had. He wrote a hymn for the family to sing as a table grace at mealtime. “Now Thank We All Our God” was published in 1636 and became one of the most widely sung hymns in all of Germany, second only to “A mighty Fortress is Our God.”

Hymnologist Alissa Davis has pointed out that Rinckart’s theology pervades the hymn. God is a God who acts: “Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices.”

He is a God who guides: “O may this bounteous God through all our lives be near us, with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; and keep us still in grace, and guide us when perplexed; and free us from all ills, in this world and the next.”

The final stanza is a doxology ascribing praise to the God who is eternal, the Holy Trinity: “All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given; the Son  and him who reigns with them in highest heaven, the one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore; for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.”

Imagine such an expression of thanks in such a time of grief and hardship! Yet that is the attitude to which we are called. As we pray for an end to the pandemic and for a cure or vaccine, we do so “with thanksgiving” (Philippians 4:6). 

As we adjust to economic constraints, school closures, crowded ICUs, and the continuing threat of a dangerous virus, we train ourselves to be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).

If Martin Rinckart can be “overflowing with thankfulness” (Colossians 2:7) in his circumstances, then by God’s grace, I can too, in mine. “Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices; who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner


A Clueless White Guy

I am a clueless white guy. I see African American men and women featured prominently in media, as newscasters, actors, writers, and producers. I see them in leadership as politicians, judges, scholars, and military leaders. I am glad I live in a country where a black man can be elected to the presidency.

This has tempted me to think about how far we have come in race relations in this country since I was a boy growing up in the segregated South. I even remember when people tossed around the phrase “post-racial society.”

I don’t hear that phrase anymore. The killings of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Trevon Martin, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor, and George Floyd, among others, have some people comparing their deaths to lynchings. “I can’t breathe!” has become a national rallying cry against the use of excessive force by police officers. Cell phones with cameras have produced video documentation of abuse of power by some bad actors.

As a result, millions have taken to the streets. Recent news reports have covered both peaceful protest marches and lawless rioting and mayhem. There is a level of frustration and anger not seen in America since the sixties. Much of it has been fueled by perceptions of how police in many cities have treated people in poor and minority neighborhoods. Lawless people have exploited the situation to promote anarchy. Americans have been watching with a mixture of righteous indignation and fear.

Spiritual leaders in my city, both black and white, have shown how spiritual commitment can lead to constructive social engagement. Friends of mine have been promoting dialogue, prayer, repentance, and positive action based upon their shared commitment to Christ and the gospel.

It is not my place to be talking about how far we have progressed in race relations. I think I should wait until I hear my African American friends tell me about the progress they feel we have made. Right now, I cannot say that I understand how they feel. I remain a clueless white guy who wants to be a part of the solution and not part of the problem.

“Love your neighbor,” Jesus said. “Okay, so who is my neighbor?” asked a proud man who wanted to make himself look good (Luke 10:25-29). In reply, Jesus told the familiar story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). The lessons could not be more clear. My neighbor is someone in my part of the world, someone who might need my understanding and caring presence, and someone who may be ethnically different from me.

If I love my neighbors that way, I will build friendships with people who look different. I have read that most Caucasian Christians have few friends who are not white. If I love my neighbors the way Jesus said to, I will get down on my knees to pray with brothers in Christ who have black skin. We will choose to converse with a biblically-informed vocabulary, not with the racially divisive language of some activists or some politicians.

If I love my African American neighbors I will seek to understand their feelings, life experiences, and motivations. When Connie and I visited Charleston, S.C., we walked to the church building where the members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church gather for worship. We wanted to visit the place where a white racist named Dylan Roof shot and killed nine worshipers on a Wednesday evening five years ago next week. “Mother Emanuel” is one of the oldest black churches in America.

We wanted to see it because that site, marked by tragedy, is also a testimony to the love of Christ. The members of the church responded with forgiveness toward the killer. Despite the fact that he was filled with racial hatred, they called upon the entire community to forgive him and to pray for him. White and black Christians came together to pray and weep in a public demonstration of solidarity. There was no violence.

I want to understand how to give and receive that kind of neighbor love. I want that for America.

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner 


Where’s the Grief?

National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” news broadcasts have been telling stories of some of the people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. So has Lester Holt on the NBC evening news. The New York Times recently published the names of thousands of the deceased on its front page. Our nation crossed a terrible threshold this week: 100,000 people have been killed by COVID-19, the plague that has infected more than 1.7 million Americans.

This is not fake news. This is not a hoax. Our nation’s respected public health physicians and scientists have no reason to lie to us about this dangerous and mysterious disease. People are dying. Doctors, nurses, and first responders are risking their own lives to care for them.

Thoughtful people of faith are praying, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray for an end to the pandemic. We pray for a cure or an effective vaccine. As we pray shall we not also take time to grieve? We want to think happy thoughts. We are inclined to turn away in denial. We numb our brains with social media and Netflix. We tell ourselves that those who have died are far away and unknown to us.

Can this be the right response to the tragedy of this historical moment? I wonder if a failure to grieve these losses will exact an emotional toll at some future time. I remember a time in my own life when I experienced the sadness of a great loss. I did not face the situation in an emotionally mature way. I denied my feelings of loss. I did not talk to anyone about them. Instead, I put on a brave demeanor and tried to be strong. It was fully a year later that depression hit me like a sledgehammer! I have learned that this was a delayed grief reaction, the result of a failure to grieve in a healthy way at the time when I most needed to do it.

Grief is a normal and appropriate response to a severe loss. It is not evidence of weak faith or moral defect. Sooner or later every person has to face the reality of death, separation, and loss. No one escapes. The New Testament reminds us that believers sometimes experience grief, but not without a final hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Two other examples come to mind, Job and Jesus. They show us constructive expressions of grief. They did not deny their sadness. They poured out their hearts in lament. In Job, we find a man expressing his grief in anger, doubt, depression, fatigue, and regret. His physical pain has him praying for death. Yet through it all, he retained his faith in God and affirmed his belief in his eventual resurrection (Job 19:25-26).

If Job’s grief was for his personal suffering, our Lord’s lament was for others, for the people of Jerusalem. On at least two occasions he voiced his sorrow over the city’s rejection of God’s kingdom (Luke 13:34-35, 19:41-44). What brought Jesus to tears was the realization that the city’s course was set for destruction. His was vicarious grief expressed for those who would not know what they could have known of God’s freedom and peace. They had refused to “recognize the time of God’s coming” to them in the person of Jesus.

The Lord’s lament for others is a lesson for us. If we find it hard to empathize with the sorrows of others, perhaps we should pause to think more deeply about what they are going through.  We hear of victims of the coronavirus who spend weeks in isolation, and who must die alone, because of the danger of contagion. We hear of families who cannot honor their loved ones with traditional funeral rituals. No gatherings of friends. No compassionate hugs. Their grief is solitary. Can we weep for them? Can we pray for them?

I heard this week of a local family whose husband and father died of the disease. The wife was asymptomatic and under quarantine. At the graveside service for her husband, she and her son had to maintain physical separation. And they were the only ones present for the burial! This story is being repeated daily, thousands of times, all over America. Do we really understand the emotional toll this is taking on our fellow citizens? Do we really think there will be no delayed trauma, possibly expressed in unhealthy ways?

A friend of mine is grieving. She is approaching the anniversary of her husband’s death, a great sorrow. She told me about her way of facing down the emotional triggers that lead to doubt and fear. She does it in the same way she faced her grief as he was dying. She writes, notebooks filled with memories and prayers. She talks, freely and honestly, with trusted confidants. She prays, with the assurance that as she comes near to God, he is coming near to her (James 4:8).

I think that is precisely what we should be doing for our nation. Lamentation is an appropriate way to pray in these circumstances. Our nation is facing unprecedented and universal disruption. Grief is a normal response. Intercession, for our nation’s leaders, for clinicians, for scientists engaged in a search for a cure, and for victims and their loved ones, is always right. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Praise to Jesus is also required, lest we forget that he is “the Living One who was dead and is alive forever and ever” (Revelation 1 :18)! Those who die believing in him are now very much alive (John 11:25). This is the assurance that will carry us through grief.

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner