Where are we now?

It’s been over a year now since the COVID-19 pandemic became severe enough for the Trump administration to declare a national state of emergency. It’s been over a year since I’ve set foot on the campus where I teach, or been to my office. With millions of Americans of every age, I have spent countless hours in front of a computer screen to meet with others and do my work. I teach online instead of in a classroom. I worship online instead of at church. And in the evening, I relax by streaming online video.

Have I mentioned I spend a lot of time online?

It’s also been over a year since I started writing regularly on this blog about Christian hope, as a response to the pandemic. Collectively, I’ve entitled these posts “The Hope Project,” and this will be the last entry in the series, at least for now.

And really, I hate to think what kind of a pickle we’d find ourselves in should I decide it was time to start the series up again.

There’s been a fair amount of good news and optimism on the virus front. Millions of Americans have been “fully vaccinated,” to use the CDC’s term, and more join their ranks by the day. Given the stories I had heard from friends and acquaintances about the hassles of getting the vaccine, my wife and I were astounded at how easy it was.

We also know several people who prefer not to be vaccinated, and understand some of their reasons. If that includes you, I only ask that you make that decision on the basis of the best and most reliable information you can find. Social media, for example, have been abuzz with stories of supposedly dire consequences that happened to people who got vaccinated — but it has not been proven that the vaccine was the reason (a man might have a heart attack after eating at McDonald’s, but that doesn’t mean he was killed by a Big Mac). Much is at stake for the global community; the longer it takes to get the virus under control, the greater the chance that new variants will emerge. Whatever you decide, please do so wisely and responsibly, watching out not only for your own health, but the health of your neighbors.

. . .

Last month, the Barna Group released the results of a study looking at how the pandemic has affected adults in the U. S. as a whole, and what Barna calls “practicing Christians” in particular. They asked whether people were more satisfied, just as satisfied, or less satisfied with various aspects of their lives, compared to how satisfied they were before COVID.

The news is not all bad. Not surprisingly, roughly a third of respondents were less satisfied with their “mental and emotional well-being”: 31% of Christians said this, as opposed to 38% of U. S. adults in general. That’s nothing to sneeze at: a third of people feel worse off than they were a year ago. But a fourth of Christians — 25% — said that they were more satisfied, compared to only 15% of all adults.

Barna received similar results when asking about how satisfied people were with their “work-life balance.” As one popular internet meme has it, people haven’t been “working at home” so much as “living at work.” The boundaries have become blurrier than ever, and some stress and tension is inevitable. Thus, 26% of practicing Christians and 32% of all adults reported themselves as less satisfied. But 35% of Christians — over a third — reported themselves as more satisfied, compared to 22% of all adults. Many more Christians, in other words, reported increases in satisfaction as opposed to decreases, and at a noticeably higher percentage than adults overall.

What gives?

One can’t know from the report itself, but part of it may be differences in circumstances. In 2020, Barna noted that women and people of lower income or socioeconomic status were more likely to have lost their jobs due to the pandemic than others, regardless of whether they were Christians or not. But Barna also found while COVID had put 14% of Americans in their survey out of work, this was true of only 7% of Christians. That’s half as many. And assuming that the same distinction holds for 2021, that surely has something to do with differences in levels of satisfaction.

. . .

Having said that, my fantasy is that Christian hope and community account for at least some of the difference. As I’ve said repeatedly, Christian hope is not mere optimism; it is not merely a positive outlook on vaccination, infection rates, and trend data. It is a way of looking at the world and seeing the providence of God. It is a way of interpreting the difficulties of the present against the background God’s promised future, a glorious future in which pain, suffering, and death will be abolished forever. It is a way of enduring the threat and insult of infection with an eye toward eternity in a resurrection body.

Here’s what I’ve seen personally. Yes, our lives have been disrupted. Yes, we’ve had to learn to connect and stay connected in new and challenging ways. We’ve had to rely on technology — and a good Internet connection — like never before (if only I had bought stock in Zoom!).

But having our taken-for-granted routines stolen away has forced us to… well, not take them for granted. I’ve seen people lean into their connection with others in ways they hadn’t before, when everything was routine. I’ve seen people search for hope when before, hope itself seemed unnecessary. I’ve seen people reach out in creative ways to their neighbors to combat their isolation and address their needs.

I’ve seen the church be the church, even when people can’t gather for worship.

Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to seeing our circumstances change for the better. But let’s be realistic: we may not be able to go back to “normal,” because normal has changed. We will not be quite as we were. And the transition to a post-COVID reality will bring its own challenges.

My hope, in other words, is not in what the virus does or doesn’t do. My hope is in God, and in the godly character demonstrated by his people in the midst of affliction.

So yes, here’s to the end of the pandemic. Lord willing, may it come soon.

But more importantly: let’s not go back to taking each other for granted.

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