The Church’s Historical Response to Plague

Scripture Focus: Proverbs 4.20-22
My son, pay attention to what I say;
    turn your ear to my words.
Do not let them out of your sight,
    keep them within your heart;
for they are life to those who find them
    and health to one’s whole body.

Reflection: The Church’s Historical Response to Plague
By John Tillman

*This will be quite a long post compared to our normal 400 words. The first half is a bit of a “backstage tour” of The Park Forum and an explanation of why we rarely write about current events such as COVID-19. If you’d like to skip over that and get straight to our devotional related to the pandemic and a response of faith, scroll on down to the heading “The Church’s Historical Response to Plague.”

At The Park Forum, we tie our devotional writing tightly to our reading plan. We rarely diverge from it other than to write about major seasons of the church year such as Lent, Easter, Advent, and Christmastide.

We address cultural trends but rarely, if ever, address specific current events. This is intended to keep our content timeless by relating it primarily to the timeless Word of God. It is also a bulwark, intended to prevent our work from becoming a response to the world, rather than a response to God’s Word. We succeed or fail in following these ideals to varying degrees each week, by God’s mercy.

The other reason we rarely write about current events is less idealistic and more practical—our publishing timeline is too long. In order to have our emails sent at 5:00 AM in each timezone around the world, we need to “send” them 24 hours in advance. We write them a minimum of 36 hours ahead of when you read it in the email or online. That’s an eternity in today’s news cycle. And honestly, when I am writing that close to the send deadline, it is quite nerve-wracking and mistakes can be made. My preference is to be at least five to ten days ahead. I am writing this, which will publish on Tuesday, on the preceding Friday evening. This is a bit late for my taste, but by the time you read it, any time-sensitive information will likely be out of date.

With all of this in mind, let us prayerfully approach the topic of COVID-19 and the gospel.

The Church’s Historical Response to Plague
Sickness and disease comes frequently into the pages of scripture. 

The ancient Jewish ethic of ritual washing and ritual cleanliness was at times (especially in regards to transmissible diseases and conditions, such as leprosies and dangerous molds) a practical step of keeping the community healthy. The role of the priests was to risk their own safety in order to inspect contaminated individuals and contaminated dwellings for signs of infection. To cause another person to be infected and in risk of death due to negligence to these regulations was to be in violation of the commandment, “Do not murder.” 

Today we have outsourced home inspection to the real estate industry and personal health to the healthcare industry. (When was the last time your pastor inspected your house for black mold?)

In an article for Foreign Policy Magazine, Lyman Stone writes of how Christianity took this ancient Jewish ethic further:

“The Christian motive for hygiene and sanitation does not arise in self-preservation but in an ethic of service to our neighbor. We wish to care for the afflicted, which first and foremost means not infecting the healthy. Early Christians created the first hospitals in Europe as hygienic places to provide care during times of plague, on the understanding that negligence that spread disease further was, in fact, murder.”

Throughout history (Particularly in the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century, and in the Plague of Cyprian in the 3rd) Christians were noted as the one group which consistently, century after century, took risks to their own health in their service to the infected and the suffering. The sociologist and religious demographer Rodney Stark claims that death rates in cities with Christian communities during these plagues may have been half that of other cities.

We see it again In 1527, when the bubonic plague struck Wittenberg. Martin Luther refused to flee the city but stayed instead and ministered to the sick. This decision cost him the life of his own daughter, Elizabeth. When asked whether Christians should flee a plague, Luther produced a pamphlet in answer. It can be boiled down to five words, “We die at our posts.”

In every major epidemic through history, Christianity distinguished itself with an ethic that stood out from the desperate self-preservation tactics of the surrounding societies. 

The historic church has left us a great example and testimony based on sound application of the scriptures. 

Are we following it? Are we caring for our neighbors or just for ourselves?

Pray that the Holy Spirit would lead you and your faith community to shine in this moment of fear and uncertainty. Be safe. Follow best practices for lowering risks of transmission. Don’t be foolish. But do all this not in service of your own safety, but in service to the community. 

When this crisis passes, will every unused bottle of hand sanitizer or vital goods stashed in our homes that could have been donated to our church or sent to a senior living center, or given to a neighbor stand as a testimony that we cared more for ourselves than for others?

This is a stark challenge to our hearts to see if we are following in the example laid before us by the Church. Tomorrow we will look at the divine comfort and inexplicable peace the Church relied on to carry out its mission during past crises.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O Hope of all the ends of the earth and of the seas that are far away.

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Proverbs 4 (Listen -2:37) 
Galatians 3 (Listen -4:39)

Read more about Taking Advantage of the Desperate
From a business perspective, the noblemen confronted by Nehemiah were simply following the market. Payday lenders would describe it as filling a “financial service void.”

Read more about The Purpose of Power
After prayer and fasting, Esther’s concerns for her own life disappear and her purpose is clarified. The purpose of Esther’s power is to serve others. So it is with us.

On Surrender

Scripture Focus: Galatians 2.20
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Reflection: On Surrender
By Matt Tullos

Surrender: The releasing of every solution, tool, and self-saving strategy.

Jesus walked to the cross in total surrender.

He explained it this way: “No one is taking it from me; I lay it down of my own free will. I have the authority to lay it down, and I have the authority to take it back again. This is what my Father has commanded me.” (John 10:18)

There has always been a controversy around who killed Jesus. But Jesus was clear. He gave up His life as an offering. As we remember the brutal account of Jesus’ death, He invites us to see the cross as an embraced undertaking.

We are His prize and He snatched us away from the enemy through the brutality of an unthinkable surrender. He loved us enough to engage himself in a 33 year passage toward an unspeakable end.

In this act we see how real love works and He is inviting us to enter this story, to live, die, and live again. When we live like Jesus, life is ever before us as an opportunity to surrender everything. What does that look like for you? Only Jesus knows and He will reveal it to you soon enough.

“Arise – go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little – be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life – without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you…
Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
Love… love… love, never counting the cost
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbor’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you. Pray always.
I will be your rest.”
— Catherine Doherty’s Little Mandate

The image of the cross is an image of absolute surrender.

When we enter into the story of Christ we see a point in time when we cannot use our hands to control anything. Our will, determination, ambition, and skill are nailed to the holy cross of Christ. While the world’s system teaches us how to control others and change ourselves, the cross has no such purpose. On the cross, our hands are not busy. They are surrendered.

The cross compels us to die to that old foe that the world calls “a self-made man.” Everything that feeds our own power, pride, ego, and self-determination has to go. It simply must. God is not improved by our efforts. He is glorified by our surrender.

When absolute and complete surrender takes hold of you, you will experience the bliss of satisfaction in Him. Whatever you have or don’t have… it wholly means nothing when you have given it all to Him. You live. You breathe. You worship. You give.
This is enough.

Survey the state of your heart. What things inside stand as barriers between you and God’s complete possession of all that you are?

*From a series Matt Tullos wrote called 39 Words. A few of these posts (including today’s) are available in audio form via Soundcloud. — John

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
“Because the needy are oppressed, and the poor cry out in misery, I will rise up,” says the Lord, “and give them the help they long for.” — Psalm 12.5

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Proverbs 3 (Listen -3:05) 
Galatians 2 (Listen -3:44)

Read more about The Step After Surrender :: Throwback Thursday
It is not this thing or that thing that must go now: it is blindly, helplessly, recklessly, our very selves.

Read more about More and More and Less and Less :: Guided Prayer
We will be at our happiest, at our most fulfilled, and at our most true self when we continually surrender more and more to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer of Pleading

Scripture Focus: 2 Corinthians 12.8-9
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you.

The following post comes from an excellent series Matt Tullos wrote called 39 Words. Matt is a longtime friend and mentor in ministry and writing who graciously allows us to share his writings for the benefit of our community. — John

Reflection:  Prayer of Pleading
By Matt Tullos

When we run out of pretty prayers and Sunday School answers, pleading is an intimate, ugly cry that dares to cast away its pride.

If it be your will,
If there is a choice,
Let the rivers fill.
Let the hills rejoice.
Let your mercy spill.
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well.
— Leonard Cohen

As He begins this final journey toward the cross, Jesus prays a haunting, surprising prayer: “If it be your will, let this cup pass from me.” This plea reveals both His humanity and divine nature.

He knows that life will close in on Him.
No escape.
No turning back.

The world He came to save is now turning against Him. At this moment, one of His followers combs through the garden with a band of conspirators to capture Him. At the time of His greatest need, His dearest companions are comatose and negligent.

He is utterly alone and the weight of the harrowing pain-every kind of pain including isolation, torture, shame, nakedness, blood and farewells, would soon appear under the rays of the moon and the poor light of a covered sun.

We see Him in the garden, a different garden that served as the arena of the man’s fall, and He pleads, “If it be your will…”

Ultimately this cup is the cup of God’s fury. People often glibly use the phrase, “The wrath of God.” There is only One who experienced the wrath of God in its completeness, in its fearful symmetry, in a place where the constructs of evil converge into one horrible event.

This is the place where Jesus is kneeling—in the crosshairs of deep malevolence and holy, blood-soaked redemption. And Jesus knows this. He knows this well.

When we plead, we come to the end of ourselves and stumble toward the One who loves us. Beggars are never rejected at the footstool of the Almighty.

Pleading is messy prayer. It’s when we can do nothing else but beg. Are you a beggar today, pleading for God’s attention?

Are you so hungry that you’d be satisfied with the crumbs of the Divine?

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Let your loving-kindness be my comfort, as you have promised to your servant.
Let your compassion come to me, that I may live, for your law is my delight. — Psalm 119.76-77

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Job 42 (Listen -2:41)
2 Corinthians 12 (Listen -3:54)

This Weekend’s Readings
Proverbs 1 (Listen -3:12) 2 Corinthians 13 (Listen -2:19)
Proverbs 2 (Listen -1:53) Galatians 1 (Listen -3:05)

Read more about Liquid Wrath and Liquid Forgiveness
The cup of God’s wrath is taken for us by Christ. He begs not to drink it, and yet he does. Leaving us not a drop to taste after him.

Read more about The Efficacy of Prayer
The thing we pray for may happen, but how can you ever know it was not going to happen anyway? — C.S. Lewis

Unobligated God

Scripture Focus: Job 41.11
Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
    Everything under heaven belongs to me.

Job 42.10-11
After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him over all the trouble the Lord had brought on him, and each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring.

Reflection: Unobligated God
By John Tillman

“Who can stand against me?” God says to Job. “Who has a claim against me that I must pay?”

In the beginning of the book of Job, the adversary, Satan questions God’s justice. He says, in effect, “You are just bribing Job, God. He doesn’t really love you.”

Through many of their arguments, Job and his friends question God’s justice. They suppose that Job must be sinning in some way, otherwise, God is unjust.

We often question God’s justice today, asking many of Job’s same questions. Why do the wicked thrive? How is it that the innocent suffer? Why is the world not just, if God is just?

When we question whether God is just, we question the author of justice.
We think God owes us something because we live in an unjust world.
But it is us who have made this world unjust, wrestling it from God’s will along the way.

We have sinned against God. Not the other way around. God is not a debtor. We are. Our sinful condition means that we are not the victims but the perpetrators. Sin makes us into God’s enemies.

God does not owe us salvation and forgiveness. 

But thank God that he pays debts that he does not owe. He is a God who gives when he has no obligation. He is a God who comes to us, as we suffer in the highways and the byways, and compels us to come into his lavish banquet.

In the last chapter of Job (tomorrow’s reading) we see that God restored Job’s fortunes. I suppose we picture God handing Job a reimbursement check. 

But there is an important detail that we should not skip over. Job’s fortunes were restored by God, yes. But God used the means of Job’s friends to carry it out. Scripture says everyone Job had ever known came to give him a financial gift. 

Part of God’s restoration of Job was carried out in the community and by the community. When God sets out to redeem someone and rebuild their lives, he typically uses people to do it. 

May we cry to God for his justice, his righteousness, to be done on earth among us.
May we be a part of communities that line up to help the suffering as people helped Job.
May our actions be empowered by the Holy Spirit to demonstrate God’s justice in the world.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
My lips will sing with joy when I play to you, and so will my soul, which you have redeemed. — Psalm 71.23

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Job 41 (Listen -3:03),
2 Corinthians 11 (Listen -4:46)

Read more about God is Faithful, not Indebted
Job and his friends believed in an indebted God who owed good to the righteous, owed suffering to the wicked, and never made late payments.

Read more about God of the Weak and Doubtful
Thank God, that he is the God of the weak and the doubtful.
In doubt hold out your hands.
In weakness cling to him.

God’s Sufficient Justice

Scripture Focus: Job 40.8-14
“Would you discredit my justice?
    Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
Do you have an arm like God’s,
    and can your voice thunder like his?
Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor,
    and clothe yourself in honor and majesty.
Unleash the fury of your wrath,
    look at all who are proud and bring them low,
look at all who are proud and humble them,
    crush the wicked where they stand.
Bury them all in the dust together;
    shroud their faces in the grave.
Then I myself will admit to you
    that your own right hand can save you.

Reflection: God’s Sufficient Justice
By John Tillman

When God finally speaks, he dares Job to dress himself in splendor and work justice in the Earth by his own power. This may have seemed uniquely personal to Job. To use today’s vernacular, Job probably felt attacked.

In earlier speeches, Job had described himself similarly to God’s challenge. Job described dressing in a turban and robe that would proclaim his status and power. He claimed to have struck fear in the hearts of the wicked and to have carried out justice. (Job 29.7-17

Job was “the greatest among the people of the East.” (Job 1.1-4) This may have meant Job was a chieftain or king, but even if not, he was as wealthy as one and equally responsible for the carrying out of justice in his community. 

Earlier, in Heaven, God defended Job’s righteousness, but here, he seems unsatisfied. So, is Job righteous or not? 

Like many heroes of faith in scripture, we can point to much earthly good in Job’s life to emulate. But like all of them, Job’s earthly actions are insufficient to claim righteousness before God. 

Humans are capable of great good and a certain level of justice and we are responsible before God to bring about justice. Justice comes first in Micah’s three-point list of what God requires of humanity: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. (Micah 6.8)

But even the highest levels of human justice are tainted. Job was arguably the most righteous person to ever live in scripture. Yet, scripture is clear that even the righteousness, or justice, of Job is as filthy rags compared to God’s glorious justice.

Being righteous before other humans is easy. We just have to be slightly less evil at heart than the next guy. But when God is the next guy, on our best day, we have no chance of being righteous in our own power. We, like Job, are simply incapable. We must simply cover our mouths, and throw ourselves on the mercy of God.

Some have abused the notion that human justice is incomplete and imperfect as an excuse to cease pursuing justice on Earth. Some even call seeking justice anti-gospel. This is misguided, to say the least. 

“Thy will be done on Earth” is a prayer for God’s justice by God’s power, not our own. When we act on this prayer, we will find Christ with us, embracing us and imputing God’s sufficient righteousness and justice to us.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.
With his right hand and his holy arm has he won for himself the victory.
The Lord has made known his victory; his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations. — Psalm 98.1-3

Today’s Readings
Job 40 (Listen -2:09),
2 Corinthians 10 (Listen -2:45)

Read more about Righteousness Sets Things RightIn Job’s example, righteousness is connected to and related to justice. The word sedeq, translated “righteous,” is often translated “just,” “justice,” “fairly,” and “rights,”

Read more about Convicted by Job’s Righteousness
If Job was defenseless before God, unable to stand before him despite all his blameless actions, what will we do when God confronts us?

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