“Social distancing” is the new buzz word for this coronavirus pandemic, but what does the term mean? Does this mean I can’t go to church? Will it really help things? As we begin our weekly web logs (I.e. blog), I’ll try to answer these and other questions either in the blog or as you leave comments below.
Social distancing is kind of a misnomer. What we really want to try to accomplish is physical distancing. This virus spreads by droplets expelled from the lungs of an infected person. According to the CDC, the average person during a strong cough can project those droplets up to 6 feet. Therefore, if we all stay at least 6 feet away from an infected person, we won’t “catch” this virus and potentially spread it to others. This is different than “social” distancing or what many today would call “ghosting” - shutting off contact (even by phone, text, or email) with another person. We certainly want to stay in contact with our brothers and sisters in Christ, just not physically.
As to the efficacy of such physical distancing, it sounds good but is really difficult to practice. IF we could maintain 6 feet of separation, then it should keep the virus from spreading. The problem is that expelled, virus bearing, droplets (known as fomites) can keep the virus alive on various surfaces for varying lengths of time - anything from a few hours to a few days. That is why frequent hand washing and avoiding touching the face is also part of the “social distance” experiment we have begun.
That is the reason that NJ has gone to a “stay in your home” directive, violations of which can result in a disorderly conduct charge with the resultant fines and penalties. So going to church is “disorderly conduct” according to the government - something to bear in mind when you vote this November. The problem with “stay at home” and “social distancing” is that we still need supplies and human beings are social animals - even introverts leave their homes every so often. Thus all “non-essential businesses” must close and even the essentials close by 8PM. This is an attempt to limit public exposure, but it wasn’t well thought out. I can’t go to church - where there’s 50 people - because I may catch the virus or, if I have it but don’t have symptoms, pass it along to others; yet I’m encouraged to go to Walmart or Shoprite where there’s 150 people? Until ALL businesses shut down and ALL roads are closed, the virus will continue to spread.
But limiting the rate of spread (viral transmission) is still a good thing. It is hoped that this will “flatten the curve”. The curve refers to peak infection. The higher (or sharper) the curve, the more people are sick all at once. This can then overwhelm the medica system as there are only so many beds, ventilators, etc. This is what we saw happen in Italy and why the death toll was so great. This is also how plagues payed out throughout history. There would be a sharp spike in the number infected, then everyone who could get the plague would have gotten it and the pathogen would “burn out” as the infected ones recovered and developed an acquired immunity. By flattening the curve, we are extending how long the virus will be with us (it’s not going anywhere until there’s immunity by having had it or vaccination) but reducing the number killed by it as our limited medical resources can keep up with those who need help.
So what’s a Christian to do? For now, stay home as much as is possible. The best way to avoid “catching” this virus is to not be exposed to it. But I’m not sick! Are you sure? The bugaboo with this virus (and why it’s a pandemic and the flu is not) is that one can be infected and spreading the virus for days before any symptoms appear, if they appear at all - some 20 to 25% of positive cases show no symptoms. Until the testing problem is solved and we know who is a carrier and who is not we are treat all people as infected. Not fair, but hey, who said life was fair. Aren’t we commanded to worship? Yes, we are. Hebrews 10:25 tells us “Let us not give up meeting together - as some in the habit of doing - but let us encourage one another and all the more as we see the Day approaching.” We also have the third commandment to honor the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. But worship doesn’t have to happen at a building set apart (consecrated) for that purpose. The Church didn’t even have buildings for the first 325 years, yet Christians worshipped. For now we are podcasting (see links on this site) and we hope to begin livestreaming soon. We can read, hear, and study the Word together as families - in fact, the small catechism is so structured for “how the head of the household is to teach his children…” We can pray together either online (prayer list) or as individuals. Celtic Christian Communities have a practice where every member of that community will pause at xx:xx o’clock to join in prayer with all the other members of that community. We can sing or read hymns as individuals or families as Dr. Luther suggests “then go about your work singing a hymn like that of the ten commandments or whatever your devotion might suggest”. The only thing we can’t do for now is gather around the Lord’s Table, but there have been many times in Church history where Christians went weeks or months between receptions of the Lord’s Supper. So it may be different than the worship we’re used to, but it’s still worship.
So how long is this going to last? Well that’s the $64 question. No one really knows. This is a new virus and so how it will behave is anybody’s guess. Some think it will fizzle out like flu once warmer weather arrives - but Hong Kong is tropical and it didn’t slow down there. Some think we just have to break the cycle of transmission through enforced social distancing and it will disappear - though new cases are still springing up in the UK and China after quarantines are lifted. Some believe this virus is here to stay until a vaccine is widely administered sometime in the spring of next year. We simply don’t know. All we can do is take things one day at a time and “let the day’s trouble suffice for the day” (Mt. 6:34) No matter what comes our way, our Shepherd continues to lead and feed His sheep and has done all that is needed to assure us that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation (including a coronavirus), will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen. Yea verily it is so.
As this is the first go at a blog, we’d like your feedback in the comments section below. I am hoping to write a much shorter one each week and have an ongoing discussion in the comments section. As this is a nascent blog the plan as of now is to put forth new material every Wednesday and limit the discussion threads to the topic of the week. If you find this helpful in your faith journey, let us know how we might better use this blog to serve your faith formation. - Pastor Brian
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.