Faith in the Time of COVID

As I mentioned last week, I had the chance to head back to in-person church on Sunday. It was capped at 25 people, we all had masks on, and sanitizer abounded. Did I feel safe? Yes. Did it feel normal? Not at all. Was it good to be back? I’m honestly not sure. It felt so different. But I think it was an important first step.

In any case, here’s the talk I delivered yesterday. (I discovered that I breathe more when I’m nervous, and when I breathe more with a mask on, my glasses fog up more, which makes it harder to read my talk. Unforeseen problems. I think I need a different mask.)

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Before 2020, I never really took much time to consider what “essential services” existed in my life. If you’d asked me back then, I probably would have listed things like electricity and groceries. Roads in good repair. Toilet paper wouldn’t have even occurred to me. In a post-COVID-19 world (or at least a world still dealing with it and hopefully getting to ‘post’ eventually), it’s been surprising to see the number of services that have been listed as essential. Services a 2019 version of me would have laughed at. Different countries made different decisions. France, for example, kept its chocolate, cheese, wine, and pastry shops open. Australia made sure its liquor and toy stores would keep running, while here in America, states watched out for gun and marijuana stores, not to mention the WWE.

If nothing else, the pandemic has taught me that we all have different priorities, and what’s considered essential to one person is considered frivolous to others. It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, to have many people upset that churches were being shuttered in the middle of all of this chaos. Somehow, however, it did. Some of this is likely due to the fact that my personal transition from a normal religious life to a socially distant one went fairly smoothly. Our church ended worldwide meetings fairly early in the pandemic, and we already had an extensive curriculum to continue church lessons at home. Not all faiths had that same luxury.

For many people, their Sunday worship services are one of the primary ways they practice their religion. Removing that ability while keeping marijuana stores open has to sting more than a little, especially when by doing so, the government is declaring religion unessential. But at the same time, many of the trappings of church service were difficult to do in a socially distant manner. Just look at how we’re resuming them now. There’s a fifth of the people here who would normally be here. No handshakes. No singing. Lots of masks and a whole lot of sanitizer. Gearing up to go to church today brought whole new meaning to the phrase “putting on the armor of God.”

It was interesting to me, then, that this week’s Come Follow Me lesson focused on the Zoramites, a group I think illustrates both sides of this situation. On the one hand, you had the rich Zoramites who built a tower from which to worship. Once a week, they would all gather and offer up prayers before returning home and forgetting God completely until it was time for church again the next week. In a pre-COVID world, how many of us fell into this category? How much of an actual impact did our religion have on us during the week, compared to the amount it had on us on Sunday?

And then you had the poor among them, who were cast out from these religious practices. They came to Alma and asked him, “Behold, what shall these my brethren do, for they are despised of all men because of their poverty, yea, and more especially by our priests; for they have cast us out of our synagogues which we have labored abundantly to build with our own hands; and they have cast us out because of our exceeding poverty; and we have no place to worship our God; and behold, what shall we do?” For the past four months, our churches have been shuttered. We have had no place to worship our God. So Alma’s response to this group is particularly applicable:

10 Behold I say unto you, do ye suppose that ye cannot worship God save it be in your synagogues only?

11 And moreover, I would ask, do ye suppose that ye must not worship God only once in a week?

12 I say unto you, it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues, that ye may be humble, and that ye may learn wisdom; for it is necessary that ye should learn wisdom; for it is because that ye are cast out, that ye are despised of your brethren because of your exceeding poverty, that ye are brought to a lowliness of heart; for ye are necessarily brought to be humble.

A time of crisis can do many things for a person. It can make someone panic or rage. It can bring a people closer together or split them further apart. The last nationwide panic I lived through was September 11th. I remember marveling in the days after those awful attacks how unified our country had become. Who else remembers the members of Congress standing on the steps singing God Bless America that evening? That sort of national unity is missing today. Granted, the thought of a large group gathering anywhere elbow to elbow is a little disconcerting right now, but I can’t picture any Congressional meeting today resulting in such a heartwarming conclusion. Maybe the WWE could arrange something.

It’s telling to me that Alma focuses on how the deprivation of a place of worship made these Zoramites more humble. Humility is a trait that could go a long way to helping us through the days, weeks, and months ahead. It’s the ability to recognize we are not all experts, and that taking advice from those with more knowledge than us is a strength, not a weakness. I feel that one of Christ’s defining characteristics was his humility. He went about preaching and practicing the Gospel without the need to continually draw attention to himself. I still see humility being exercised on a local level, but on the national stage, it goes unnoticed, likely because it’s not the sort of thing that sells papers or attracts eyeballs. But its opposite is much easier to find: pride.

In 1989, President Ezra Taft Benson gave a fantastic talk on the dangers of pride. What it is, why it is so evil, and how to avoid it. If you haven’t read it lately, I encourage you to revisit it, especially in light of today’s environments. Here are a few quotes that stood out to me:

“The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. Enmity means “hatred toward, hostility to, or a state of opposition.” It is the power by which Satan wishes to reign over us. Pride is essentially competitive in nature. We pit our will against God’s. When we direct our pride toward God, it is in the spirit of “my will and not thine be done.”’

“The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others. In the words of C. S. Lewis: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.”’

“Another face of pride is contention. Arguments, fights, unrighteous dominion, generation gaps, divorces, spouse abuse, riots, and disturbances all fall into this category of pride. Contention in our families drives the Spirit of the Lord away. It also drives many of our family members away. Contention ranges from a hostile spoken word to worldwide conflicts. The scriptures tell us that “only by pride cometh contention.”’

If we could, as a people and a world, lower the emphasis placed on personal and national pride, a global pandemic would be much easier to overcome, though it would not solve all our problems.

Non-believers often ask the faithful for an explanation. If God is so great, how can He allow bad things to happen to good people? During a pandemic, why would God let the religious suffer? I read stories of examples of congregations who met before quarantine was called. Church choirs that acted as superspreaders of the disease, killing members in the process. I read of other examples during the quarantine. People who met in spite of the ban, believing their faith would protect them from the disease. That did not turn out to be true. If God loves his children and wants them to come unto Him, why wouldn’t He make sure they could do that without catching COVID? Shouldn’t an all powerful being be capable of that?

The answer, to me, lies in another story from the Book of Mormon. At one point, there are two different groups of people living in bondage to the Lamanites: the People of Limhi, and the People of Alma. Both are longing to be free, and both take very different paths to freedom. The People of Limhi faced their trial without faith. They sent their men against the Lamanites three different times, losing each battle. Their time of captivity was difficult to say the least.

The People of Alma, on the other hand, faced their captivity with faith. Instead of trying to rely on their own strength, they prayed about what to do. In response to those prayers, they received comfort and guidance. Mosiah 24:13-14: “And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came to them in their afflictions, saying: Lift up your heads and be of good comfort, for I know of the covenant which ye have made unto me; and I will covenant with my people and deliver them out of bondage.

14 And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions.”

So there you have it: two examples of people dealing with the same problems. One with faith, and one without. It’s important to remember the ones with faith didn’t have those problems magically removed. Rather, their capacity for dealing with those problems was increased. They were comforted, and they had hope. Our faith isn’t some cheat code to life that lets us escape social distancing and pandemics. But it can certainly help us handle the fallout from them.

That said, I feel non-believers often look at religion as a band aid. A carrot dangled in front of the unhappy masses that tells them things will get better once this life has been endured. One of the teachings I love most about our religion is that this life isn’t supposed to be a burden. Yes, it’s filled with difficult times and situations. But “men are that they might have joy.” Religion isn’t here to help us make sense of things with a casual “it will all get better after this is over.” It’s here to help us make things better now. Today. Even in the middle of social distancing, pandemics, and political unrest.

So how has my religion helped me in the last four months? One major way it has helped is by providing guidance on how I should handle the situations as they arrive. To me, the current debate between personal freedoms and the safety of others has a pretty simple solution: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” If nothing else, wearing a mask is a way for me to show others I care about them and the health of our society. Honestly, I see myself wearing a mask much more often in the future. I always looked at mask wearing cultures as somehow strange. Who would want to go around wearing a mask all the time? Now my views have changed. It’s not strange. It’s considerate.

I wrote on my blog earlier during the pandemic about how masks are the modern equivalent of Moses’ brazen serpent. Growing up, I learned in church all about Moses and the brazen serpent. If you don’t know about the story, the quick overview is that when the Israelites were complaining in the wilderness, poisonous snakes showed up, killing a bunch of them. Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole, telling the people that if they’d look at the serpent, they wouldn’t die from the snake bites. This is referenced again in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 17:41), where it says “the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished.”

I never got the point of that story. If I was feeling sick, and someone told me all I had to do to feel better was to look at a bronze serpent, wouldn’t I at least give it a shot? I mean, we’re talking poisonous snakes here. I’d look at a bronze elephant if it gave me snake immunity. And yet there were the Israelites, not looking and choosing to die instead.

The pandemic has shown me I had overestimated humanity’s willingness to do simple things to avoid bad things. Today, we’re told that if we would all just start wearing masks, COVID-19 would essentially wither away and die. It wouldn’t spread fast enough to keep going. True, this means a lot of us would need to wear a mask even when we aren’t sick (or don’t feel sick), but if all of us put on a mask (even if just 70% of us put on a mask, according to some studies!) we could go back to the life we all remember in February.

I have often thought about how stories that seem so clear cut are much thornier in practice. We get used to reading those stories with the benefit of knowing what the right answer was. When it comes time for us to apply those stories in our lives, the decisions somehow get tangled.

Like the People of Alma, my faith has helped me find a purpose in the problems. It didn’t shield me from the effects, but it helped me have an idea how best to handle those effects, and the constant ability to pray for support and guidance was always useful to me. The shift to studying the Gospel with my family each week felt refreshing. I didn’t have to worry about lessons that went awry, or awkward comments that needed to be handled or explained. I knew exactly what my kids were receiving for instruction, and it was much easier for us to have frequent discussions about how the Gospel can be applied in our lives.

Back when they first announced the shift to two hour church, I looked at the home study program that was introduced to take its place as a nice thought, but not the real meat of the matter. We were losing a whole hour of church! Every week! There was much rejoicing in the Cundick household. But in hindsight, it seems clear to me the move wasn’t made because God wanted to gift me with an hour of my life back each week. The real reason–or at least one reason–was that a global pandemic was on the horizon, unknown to any of us, and having a home-centered approach to practicing religion would prove to be invaluable. True, I suppose some non-believers would call that coincidental. We’ll have to agree to disagree on that point.

The longer this home-centered church arrangement has progressed, however, the more concerned I’ve become for the health of the church as a whole. When the time comes for us all to transition back to weekly meetings, what portion of our membership will decide those meetings didn’t seem that necessary after all? There’s a reason we’re commanded to gather together oft. I’ve had discussions with members over the years, and we’ve bemoaned the fact that sometimes church can be–I’m going to be blunt here–boring. Boring with a capital B. And I know some of that is my own fault for not being spiritually prepared enough over the week, but I also know that not all talks and lessons apply equally to all types of members. A talk that might really resonate with me might leave the person in the pew next to me snoring in their seat. But there’s something in that mixture–forcing yourself to interact with others and wrestle with the same problems and concepts–that somehow helps everyone involved strengthen their faith. When we’re asked to do things outside our comfort zone or teach things we might not fully understand, that pushes us to grow.

Being around other people who share the same overarching goal of returning to live with God helps us remember our own imperfections. Perhaps one of the reasons things are becoming more and more splintered across the country is for the very reason that so much of our interaction has shifted from the watercooler and public square over to Facebook or Twitter.

We’re not through this pandemic yet. Or rather, it’s not through with us yet. Still, I’m glad to be back in church in at least some form. How has religion helped me through the pandemic? It’s helped me in the same way an answer key helped me learn math. I could struggle through the problems as they came up, but check at the back of the book now and then to make sure I was still on track. Or if you’re more of a humanities than a math person, religion during this time has been my Rosetta Stone, able to give meaning and understanding to things that would otherwise be incomprehensible.

Religion is an essential service to me. I’m grateful I can practice it regardless of where I am or whom I’m with, but I’m also cognizant of the fact that it’s a thing that needs to be a shared experience to be properly understood. I know faith is something that can be disparaged and misunderstood by many, but once again, it’s been one of the few things keeping me sane and focused in these troubling times, and I know it can do that for everyone. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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