Catherine of Siena has a particularly relevant story as our world faces what could be the Black Death of MMXX.
One hundred seventy years before the Protestant Reformation, the plague of the day swept through Siena, and by AD 1349, half the population was dead. Half. Fifty percent. Not one percent. Not two percent. Fifty. In some places even sixty percent. They didn’t have tests. So maybe somebody exaggerated. So let’s just round down to fifty.
In the middle of this—the first of several such pandemics—Catherine was born. Her parents’ twenty-fourth child, Catherine lost a twin at birth. A younger sister after her died as well, making Catherine the youngest of a very large family. And from a young age, she was devoted to Christ.
When the plague came roaring back in 1374, it affected every last citizen. If they didn’t die themselves, they buried half or more of their loved ones. Catherine herself lost a brother, a sister, and eight nieces and nephews; she dressed some of those little bodies for burial. Read that again and let it sink in.
We know, don’t we, what can happen to people who touch the corpses of plague victims? We know that when those in the helping professions risk their lives to aid those stricken with a wasting disease, many of them perish for their kindness. But they help anyway. And Catherine was such a helper.
When the plague returned to Siena, Catherine was only twenty-seven years old. And while just about anyone who could flee for the safety of the countryside did so, she and those under her influence—men and women alike—stayed to care for Jesus Christ in the faces of the sick. And when people died, Catherine and her team prepared Jesus’s body for burial in the corpses of the dead. With all their hearts they believed our Lord’s words, “I was sick, and you took care of me” (Mt. 25:36).
Catherine lived six more years—to the ripe old age of 33, when she is said to have died of a stroke. (The average life expectancy then was 30 to 35 years.) The pandemic never touched her. But it did touch many like her who risked their lives.
I want to run from danger; her perfect love cast out fear.
In Orvieto, a few hours southeast of Siena, every other year some students and I stay in a monastery from which we can take day trips to places like Catherine’s home. Orvieto is unique in that it sits on a mass of tufa rock through which Etruscans long before Christ dug passageways and caverns—thousands of them winding beneath the city. We have to take a tram to get up to the top of the mountain where the city is, and from the side of the cliff we can look out over the Umbrian countryside.
When the plagues hit, people would quarantine themselves deep in the Sheol below us until the danger passed. In some parts of the city, people would dig out to the side of the cliff and make grottos where pigeons could roost—right above grills for roasting them. So the protein needed to sustain these temporarily cave-dwellers flew to them like airborne manna.
I’m thinking a lot these days about times I’ve descended dark steps (photo above) to wander in the bowels of Orvieto’s passageways to caverns dug out beneath the very lodging where I have made it my home away from home. And it brings me comfort to know this: The church has been here before. More than once. And she has cried out to God, who bent his ear earthward and delivered her.
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This week two friends lost their jobs. One has a family to support; the other was just getting back on her feet, having relocated to take a job after a long season of seeking work.
My heart aches for these who, for me, put a face on our spike in unemployment rates. Their circumstances remind me of the days when my husband and I got pink slips. In the forty years Gary and I have been married, we have had three job layoffs between us—one for me and two for him.
I had worked in Human Resources and Communications for nine years at a financial services corporation—owned by landholders who held the deed to what we know today in its developed state as Las Colinas. My employer was the cash cow funding the high-rises going up. We had more money than sense.
But then our company president helped negotiate a deal in which he got millions to retire early and go hunt big game while 700 of us got notified that we could move to Georgia or file for unemployment. I learned a lot about leadership and how not to shepherd from that experience. How I loved that job! And I loved my co-workers. The day I walked out in 1990 was the last time I ever saw most of them.
Within two years, I had started my own freelance business and enrolled in seminary. In retrospect I can see that layoff as the best transition of my career. But two years is 730 days. That’s a lot of 24-hour periods of wondering how it will turn out. And some of those days and nights included failed adoptions. The transition to being home alone all day made that harder.
One of my husband’s layoffs happened when the law firm for which he worked as an administrator decided to outsource his position along with those of all his employees. We had just drained our savings to pay off our car. And then the bottom fell out of the market. The year: 2008.
I kept a journal during those days in which I listed God’s provisions. And I ran out of space to write. At times it was almost comical how our needs got met. Once I attended an event at which the planner asked me afterward, “Can I send you home with a couple of unopened Costco trays of deli meats, a cheese smorgasbord, and fresh fruits? I overestimated on the headcount and I need to get rid of all this stuff.” We never missed a meal.
I used to read Jesus’s promise, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things [food, shelter] will be added to you.” And I’d wonder, “Can we really claim that as a promise? Don’t people who love God sometimes starve?”
Now that my husband works doing a job he loves with African nationals, I see that promise through new eyes. Our friends in Kenya have less of an individualistic and much more of a communal mindset than do most of us in the West. And these friends remind me that part of seeking first the kingdom of God is loving the people God loves—cherishing the bride of Christ, even when she wears a dirty dress. And if I’m seeking God first by feeding him when he is “hunger in the stomach of an African friend,” those friends will take care of me when the hunger gnaws at my own belly.
I heard a Manhattan pastor tell of how his wealthier members cared for the poorer among them, expecting nothing in return. But when the bottom dropped out of the market in ’08, those poorer members made sure none of their formerly rich friends went hungry. Seek ye first….
Last week the National Association of Evangelicals reported that since the big lockdown, more than six out of ten churches have seen offerings decline. Those of us who still have jobs need to look at our charitable giving. Our churches need us. Our schools that receive no government funding need us. Our ministry organizations need us. Our humanitarian service providers need us. Our friends without jobs need us. We can’t do it all. But we can do something.
And not only do people need our money, they need our time. I’ve loved seeing how many of my friends and acquaintances have taken to sewing masks. A friend in New York City is doing so and donating profits to A Hope for New York and her church’s deacon’s fund, which assists people in her congregation experiencing financial hardship.
How can we give of our time and talents? To whom much is given, much is required.
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I was reading in Acts 8 last week. And it struck me anew how persecution scattered the disciples. As a result of a government crackdown, the gospel spread. And since Paul could not see his friends face to face, he had to resort to writing letters…some of which millions, self included, still read.
One of our friends researched the phenomenal growth of the church in Cuba under Communism. And he told us that part of why the ekklesia has grown so fast there is precisely due to the mandate to keep gatherings small. Much of the Cuban church has met in homes. And when a group has outgrown its space in a house, they have had to practice cell division.
As it turns out, staying small has worked like gasoline on the Spirit’s flame. Every person is known. Cared for. Missed if absent. Needed. Funds have been spent on people and needs more than buildings. And no one face represents Christians, which has made the Bride harder to identify and stop.
How many people do we need to form a church? Jesus set the minimum at two: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matt 18:20).
Our government is asking us to limit our gatherings, and not because of what we profess. But in order to do something that is integral to our mission—to show love for others. Our society right now interprets refraining from large gatherings as an act of love. Yet some among us insist we must fight for their rights. (Ironically, among them are some of the very people who have told women “you may feel mistreated, but spiritual maturity is not about rights.” They are also some of the same people who have quoted Romans 13 and insisted that “God puts governments in place” whenever fellow believers have questioned the character or actions of our president.) Some words of James come to mind about double-minded people….
No one has told the church we must stop meeting because of what we believe. Being told to limit our gatherings is not persecution. Our vice president has asked us to cap our gatherings at ten people, which is five times the minimum Jesus set. Surely, we can do this. We must. Otherwise—what in the name of holy love are we thinking? Christian love, witness, and testimony always trump our civil rights. Paul waited till the Philippians beat him up to pull his citizenship card. Why? Because he was a citizen of a kingdom that is not of this world.
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Speaking of Paul, I’ve been thinking lately about him relating to the subject of goodbyes.
This apostle to the Gentiles moved around the Roman Empire a lot, systematically preaching the gospel. But eventually he settled in Ephesus. Under Roman rule, Ephesus was a strategic commercial center, surpassed in importance only by Rome and Alexandria. The population of Ephesus was at least half a million people. And it was known for its ports. From its harbors Pompey released his soldiers, and Cleopatra and Mark Antony gathered their ships before their ill-fated battle at Actium.
Paul lived and ministered in Ephesus for three and a half years. But his time there was drawing to an end. So he sent Timothy on ahead to Macedonia, and Paul was making plans to follow soon when a disturbance happened relating to Artemis of the Ephesians—whose temple was the most awe-inspiring of the Seven Wonders of the World. The author of Acts records that Paul was known for saying that gods made with hands are not real gods, and that went over badly with the silversmiths selling goddess souvenirs.
When the uproar ended, Paul knew he needed to leave fast. So “he sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said goodbye and set out for Macedonia” (Acts 20:1).
Eventually, when he was sailing back toward Asia on his way to Jerusalem for Pentecost, he knew he lacked time to go all the way to Ephesus. So he sent word to the elders of the Ephesian church to meet him on the beach at Miletus. That meant about a fifty-mile walk for them. But they did it. And there he delivered a moving commencement speech. (You can read it in Acts 20:18–35).
Can you imagine the agony, both for him and them? No photos to carry in his wallet or phone. No FaceBook. No U.S. Postal Service. This was goodbye for good—this side of eternity. Luke records that “when Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.”
My favorite day of the academic year is commencement. The seminary where I work has rigorous requirements. And it’s not inexpensive to attend. Some move to Dallas from overseas, like our friend Emmanuel—“Emmie”—from Kenya. Some leave spouses and endure the separation for years so they can pursue the pearl of great price. The sacrifices our students make… The toil and sweat they put in…. Graduation is their big celebration to mark new beginnings—and to thank those who supported them in every way. For our doctoral candidates, graduation is an especially big deal, as it marks the day they receive their terminal degree after cumulative decades of study.
Graduation offers the opportunity for a last message, a last photo, a last hug before people—often whom we have known and loved for about three and a half years—scatter to the ends of the earth. We know some are going into places where they may have to lay down their lives. Once a student from the Middle East said, “You Americans say ‘God has a wonderful plan for your life,’ but where I come from, we say ‘Jesus is worth dying for.’”
I learned that, this year for the first time, we cannot hold the Friday night barbecue-under-the-tent, the laying on of hands to commission our grads in one final chapel service, the in-the-flesh pomp and circumstance with full regalia at which we sing one last at-the-top-of-our-lungs “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”—diadem version. We’ll have none of this for Dani and Ethel and Joy and Hayley and Luke and Ellen and Bianca and Marlene and Christian and Emmie and Steve and Kim from Australia…and so many more names… I confess—I cried. But not nearly as much as some of them did. So many people are living with such disappointment right now.
Recently, I posted this message on FaceBook: “To all the parents breaking it to your kids that they won’t get to return to school, I’m sorry. To all the grads and family and friends and profs/teachers who don’t get to celebrate them at ceremonies and parties, I’m sorry. To all the people who have lost work, I’m sorry. Or working under disrupted conditions… To all the people who don’t get to see their loved ones, I’m sorry. To those who don’t get to properly mourn their dead, I’m sorry. To those working crazy hours …concerned for their lives… Wedding plans wrecked…And on and on. So many losses. Having hope does not mean we live in denial of all the losses.” Within 24 hours, I received more than 200 responses.
I think the words struck a chord because goodbyes matter. Marking a big occasion with loved ones is an important part of our humanity. Paul considered saying a proper goodbye, complete with a commencement address tailored to his beloved friends’ needs, as important enough to compel those friends to make a one-hundred-mile round-trip walk.
Paul was great at writing letters. But sometimes marking an occasion with hugs, tears, a message delivered in person, and in-the-flesh time with loved ones is worth making a huge effort over. Or burying our head in our hands and crying when it can’t happen.