A couple of times while I was on my medical leave I shared some thoughts via our all-church email blasts related to the COVID-19 Pandemic. This week, as I have been undergoing cyber-knife radiation treatments (5 daily 1 hr treatments, Monday thru Friday of this week), I have had to scale back my activity as I have experienced the common side effects of both headaches and fatigue following each treatment. However, since I’m feeling a bit better today, I wanted to briefly share another word of encouragement as we live through the next few weeks of sheltering in place.
This word came to me from our brother Klyne, who shared a letter that the great reformer, Martin Luther wrote to his colleague John Hess during the Black Plague epidemic in Europe in 1527. Klyne included an article by Erin Hawley, a legal fellow for Independent Women’s Forum and a former clerk to Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., which puts Luther’s letter to Hess in historical context.
Hawley notes in his article that during the Black Plague, the Elector of Saxony, John the Steadfast, had ordered Martin Luther to take his family and leave Wittenberg. That’s what everyone who had the means were doing – fleeing the villages and leaving behind the sick and dying in order to increase their own chances of survival. Doctors refused to see patients and priests refused to comfort the sick and dying. The root cause of the plague was still unknown at that time, but what was known was that one’s chances of catching it exponentially increased by being around those who were afflicted by it.
This letter, entitled “Whether one may flee from a deadly plague”, was a response to a sincere Christian’s query as to whether or not it was morally acceptable to flee for one’s own safety, even if it meant abandoning those who are in need. Here is Martin Luther’s response:
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer
medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in
order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so
cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, He will
surely find me, and I have done what He has expected of me, and so I am not responsible
for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I
shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a
God-fearing faith, because it is neither brash nor foolhardy, and does not tempt God.”
Clearly, Luther believed in the power of God and prayer (the very first sentence of the letter), but he also believed in science and “best practices” (the next two sentences of the letter, which includes a reference to 16th century social distancing)! Luther expresses his unswerving faith in the providence of God, but equally as strongly, he declares his conviction that our faith in Christ compels us to serve the sick and dying, even at great personal risk. Take every precaution when serving, but continue to serve one’s neighbors in need.
We know Luther practiced what he preached. He refused to leave the village of Wittenberg during the Black Plague. Instead, he and his then pregnant wife Katharina, opened their home as a ward for the sick during the Plague.
I think about all our front line heroes (hospital, nursing home & all other medical personnel, police, fire, & first responders, etc) serving the sick and dying. I think of all the essential employees, serving us all as those caring for their neighbors during this pandemic. But all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus are also called to serve our neighbors in need during these days of COVID-19.
Luther had a very simple definition of godliness: “Love God, love your neighbor”. Even in the times we find ourselves, especially in the times we find ourselves, we are likewise called to a “mindful godliness” in our obedience to Christ, meaning as we serve others, we will take every precaution, but we will continue to serve our neighbors in need. May the Lord protect us and give us both courage and compassion for the challenges and opportunities these days bring!