Social distancing. That's the technical term used to describe the non-pharmaceutical steps that can be taken to stop or slow down the spread of a contagious disease. Social distancing measures can include the cancellation of mass gatherings, self-shielding measures to limit face-to-face contact, and elbow bumps instead of handshakes or hugs. I understand the importance of measures like these to mitigate the spread of a virus like COVID-19. I understand how compliance with these suggestions can ultimately be a love of neighbor issue. We love one another best by limiting social interaction for a season in order to avoid spreading an infectious virus that could infect many and kill our most vulnerable.
So don't misunderstand anything I'm about to say. I am not questioning the merits of these safety measures. Let me say that again: I am not questioning the merits or value of social distancing efforts in mitigating the spread of an infectious disease.
But I want to ask an important question. What do we do when our social distancing collides with the inconvenience of grief? Most of American public life has been cancelled or postponed for the indefinite future as we grapple with the coronavirus pandemic. But death hasn't missed a beat. People are still dying. And not just from the coronavirus. They're dying from heart attacks, from cancer, from car accidents, from strokes, from suicide. And most of the time they're leaving behind loved ones that are riddled with an inconvenient grief. A grief that didn't wait until after the pandemic has died down. A grief that can't be scheduled or postponed for a more convenient moment.
So what happens when the inconvenience of grief strikes your community? Your neighborhood? Your church? Your family? Do you stay at home rather than weep with a widow in a hospital room? Do you offer an elbow bump to a grieving son who's just lost his father? Do you tell them to wait to grieve until the quarantines are over? Do you tell people not to grieve? Do you livestream a funeral? Do you weep with those who weep in person, or is it enough to share a teary-eyed emoji?
I realize my questions may come across as snarky and politically incorrect. I realize some may write me off as being foolhardy or unconcerned about the potential impact of this pandemic. I assure you that is not the case. For me these are not hypothetical questions. They are very real, very personal, and very recent. The truth is social distancing just doesn't work in the face of inconvenient grief. It just doesn't.
But aren't we supposed to love our neighbor? Isn't keeping our distance just another way to show each other how much we care. Yes, but only to a point. And although I don't know where that line shows up for every person, I can tell you for me that that line was shattered in the face of the inconvenience of grief. I wish I had clear answers for everyone and every situation. I just don't. As a pastor, the past few days have been incredibly hard for me. I love the people God has called me to lead. And that's not a cliché. I love them. Really, I love them dearly. They are my family. And when the inconvenience of grief struck my family this weekend I hugged and wept and gathered and prayed. And I know without a shred of doubt that those actions were right.
So here is my challenge to whoever would read this short article. As we seek to love our neighbor during this virus, let's not forget to be there for our neighbors when they're grieving. As we take extraordinary precautions to preserve human life among us, let's not forget what it is that makes us human and why that's worth preserving in the first place. As we fight to avoid the spread of sickness let's not forget to live life and love those around us. To borrow the words of Solomon,
To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:
a time for elbow bumps and a time for hugs,
a time for distance and a time to be near,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to be born and a time to die.
May God grant us wisdom to know what we're called to do in whatever times we find ourselves in. Even in the inconvenience of grief.