Wednesday, May 13, 2020

For Whom The Bell Tolls


Dear Friends,

There are two designated COVID-19 hospitals in Los Angeles one in the south and the other in the North that’s right across the street from me. Their once overflowing parking lot has been empty since the start of the virus in our City. No “normal” patients, surgeries or visitors. Olive View Medical Center now only handles the coronavirus cases and all day long there’s a never-ending procession of county and private ambulances making the “deliveries” of COVID-19 patients who are being transferred from other hospitals. Then there are also the vehicles I see driving from the hospital that are doing the patient “pickups.” The black Lincoln Navigators that look like normal SUV’s except that they have the windows completely blacked out and are driven by mortuary attendants.

My weekly grocery shopping is at our local Smart and Final. I take advantage of the “old folks” hours at 6 am and the parking lot just has a few cars in it. I get out of my car. Stop. Look to the south and pray. Just on the other side of an adobe-colored block wall that’s a few hundred feet away is a post-acute nursing home called The Grove. Currently forty-three residents in this sixty-eight bed home are suffering with COVID-19 and seventeen of their staff members test positive. In our community of Sylmar, fifteen people have died of the virus – twelve here at The Grove and the other three deaths at different nursing homes. My heart grieves for these residents. We had been asked to do Sunday church services at The Grove but we didn’t have the resources to do so and we were already committed to holding services at Abbey Road, the residential care facility that’s the next door neighbor to The Grove. I check every day and I’m thankful that no one at Abbey Road has the virus. We are overwhelmed with the reality of death. Since the pandemic started, it seems like the L.A. Times has published a daily story about someone’s loved one dying from the virus. The media has smothered us with COVID stories. Those of us who turned daily to the latest sports stats now turn to the daily death stats in our community.

For too many months I’ve been reminded daily about the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. Some of us went to an Ash Wednesday service where the pastor smudged a cross of ashes on our forehead and reminded us of our coming death by saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We go home, wash our forehead, and turn on the television. Death is not something any of us want to dwell on. But now it seems as though this Biblical-like plague has imposed a cross of ashes on our forehead that can’t be washed off and we are reminded daily of suffering and death.

We read of both the young and old dying within a few days of receiving a positive diagnosis and wonder if that could happen to us. On a personal note, I was compelled to finally acknowledge that if I were to die, while thanks be to God all would be well with my soul, perhaps not so much with my property and finances. I’ve always felt that a Last Will and Testament was for older people to worry about but, even though I’m only seventy, I decided I should have one anyway despite my youth and good health. We hear and read about many, like myself, who have used this time when our normal world is on pause to acknowledge our mortality, reevaluate our lives and then to discover what is important for us as we continue to dwell in this our temporary earthly home. I know those whose careers and jobs were the most important thing in their life – now their children are. And what we pastors have been seeing is that as people have become fearful and vulnerable, they are now more open and receptive to God. A poll last week showed that 24% of all Americans said that their faith has grown stronger and is helping them get through the pandemic, and among church-goers, 68% reported that their faith has grown and is greatly helping them at this time.

A church has been starting out its online service with a close up of their bell ringing and a man’s voice intoning, “Ask not for whom the (death) bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” In the middle of our fears, it might seem inappropriately grim to start a church service by implying that we are next to die, but when we listen to the context of what is being read, we realize that’s not what it means. The phrase refers to funeral bells and comes from a Christian devotional written by John Donne who lived in England in the 1600's. Donne wrote “No man is an island.. any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” saying in essence that we are all part of the same family of God and what affects one affects us all. When the death bell tolls for the young man dying in the ICU or the woman in the nursing home, it tolls for the little part of us that has also died. 

Some live in a world where we narcissistically demand it be our way and we see that reflected in the recent protests against sheltering at home. We are outraged to find that we do not have a constitutional right to a haircut. We have no need for a mask – our green kale smoothies, daily supplements and our yoga keep us healthy. And yet it’s the social distancing and our annoying mask that keep others safe from us. If we’ve contracted the virus, we can infect others with it up to two days before we manifest the symptoms. John Doone’s devotional reminds us that in the Kingdom of God, those strangers are our family. It’s not just about us.

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The AMEN Corner is a weekly devotional for the family and friends of New Hope Family Church. It is intended for this devotional to be strengthening, encouraging or comforting and your comments too should be for the glory of God and reflect the intended purpose of these posts.

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