Conference minister reflects on ways to live
By Mike Denton
Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ Conference Minister
Isaiah 55 includes a message of courage, compassion, grace and persistence. It's a message to those on the edge of losing hope that also invites a rootedness in faithfulness.
The idea of listening is central to this text's invitation to pay attention and discern what we hear with an open mind and heart. It's an invitation to connect earthly realities to the promise of holy possibilities. It is not a text in denial of the current situation but one that points toward our current vocation.
It meets us in this moment. We hear drum beats of war, sirens of our changing climate, calls for justice and equity. We hear these things, and we are called to listen to God's voice speaking to us throughout and outside the things we hear. We are called to listen.
God speaks through truth, and this reality will be essential in the coming days. Even though there's been a political decision to begin to live into endemic practices, we're still in a pandemic. I don't minimize the decisions or the new policies, nor do I criticize them, but I can't celebrate them, either.
Previous policies were an attempt to "flatten the curve." The new policies are resigned to the idea that, based on our behavior, local politics and the longevity of this virus, flattening the curve is unlikely. Politically, the decision has been made that living with flattening the curve policies no longer outweighs the economic, social and mental health risks.
The decision has been made that the increased number of deaths is a price worth paying for a different definition of societal health.
Because we have many folks in our congregations who will face increased risk, we have to pay attention beyond the policies. We need to root ourselves in what we've learned and listen differently to warning signs.
After two years, we've gained some tools and advanced practices. One thing we've learned is that the pandemic seems to have a two-month-cycle. The pandemic rages for two months and then recedes for two months. In October, this cycle predicted—pre-Omicron—that there would be a winter surge in the U.S. followed by another surge sometime in the spring. Right on time, it looks as though we will have a new wave starting sometime at the end of March and beginning of April.
One indicator is that Europe is already into beginnings of its next surge. The U.S. surge has usually been two weeks behind the European surge.
Backing this up is new U.S. data from wastewater testing, which finds signs of COVID ahead of individuals testing. Individuals tend to be tested when feeling symptoms or after potential exposures. Wastewater testing tends to be accurate because it's essentially an entire population being tested. These numbers indicate that COVID numbers are rising.
If the next wave comes in April, it is likely there will be need for caution during Holy Week and Easter. Vaccinations and masking make a difference but—even based on the CDC's new guidelines—we'll be moving into a time when increased caution will again be merited simply because of the number of those in congregations considered high risk.
Part of me hopes the data is wrong. I miss the intimacy of Holy Week and the celebration of Easter. I want this two-year Lenten season to be over. Part of me hopes I'll send an email soon saying, "Woohoo! Please ignore my comments in March!"
That said, there is some good news buried in the patterns of predictability. There is truth there, so I believe the voice of God is there.
We have some ideas about what to listen to now. We are practiced at mitigation strategies.
We have raincoats for when it rains and know it's sometimes safer to stay home when it's icy. Similarly, we have masks for when the viral count is going up and know that sometimes the safest thing to do is stay home.
New variants will teach us new practices and new timing in the future, but the next wave needn't be a surprise. The receding of this wave may point to a nice June and July. We shall see.
We've come a long way and we still have a ways to go. In the same way that we are learning the predictability of this pandemic season, there is a predictability in our faith life, too.
At the risk of rushing this Lenten season, it's important to recognize we know the story. There is suffering and death, and then a surprisingly empty tomb. There's a resurrection and life bigger than life. In the same way, waves of the pandemic have become predictable.