When you see the word “plague,” what images come to mind? If you live in California, this is more than a theoretical question.
Health officials in California revealed this week that a resident of their state has tested positive for plague. The patient is believed to have been bitten by an infected flea while walking their dog. The individual is currently under medical care and is recovering at home.
Here’s the part of the story that especially troubled me: according to a public health official, “Plague is naturally present in many parts of California, including higher elevation areas.” As a result, “It is important that individuals take precautions for themselves and their pets when outdoors, especially when walking, hiking and/or camping in areas where wild rodents are present.”
The official added: “Human cases of plague are extremely rare but can be very serious.”
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread around the world, it’s discomforting to know that an ancient disease is still a present threat as well.
Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It can infect people and mammals, according to the CDC, though people are usually infected after being bitten by a rodent flea carrying the plague bacterium or by handling an animal infected with the disease. Modern antibiotics are effective in treating plague, though without prompt treatment, the disease can cause serious illness or death.
Plague was responsible for the Black Death, the deadliest pandemic in human history. Peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351, it resulted in the deaths of as many as two hundred million people and killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population.
Two centuries later, plague struck Wittenberg, Germany, in August 1527. The disease was especially horrific: in just one day, an infected person could show signs of delirium, fever, speech disorders, and loss of consciousness. Soon after, they would break out in large boils that infected the bloodstream and rapidly led to their death.
Martin Luther, the famous reformer, was living in Wittenberg at the time. He and his wife Katharina, who was pregnant, were urged to flee the city. However, they chose to stay in order to minister to those who were sick and dying.
Luther took every precaution, practicing the medicine of his day as well as what we call social distancing. At the same time, he chose to reframe this crisis as an opportunity for the gospel. By sharing God’s love with those facing death, he was able to show them the way to eternal life.
Let’s follow his example.
I believe God redeems all he allows. I also believe that one way he intends to redeem the COVID-19 pandemic is by using his people to show his compassion to the world.
Christianity is an incarnational movement. Unlike religions that teach their followers how to ascend to God, the gods, or their version of the afterlife, our faith teaches that our God descended to us. He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). Then he “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (v. 8).
Now we are called to “have this mind among yourselves” (v. 5) by imitating his incarnational commitment to service. We are called to go to those who will not come to us, meeting felt needs to meet spiritual needs and demonstrating our Father’s grace in our love.
The seventeenth-century theologian John Owen noted: “Satan’s greatest success is in making people think they have plenty of time before they die to consider their eternal welfare.” However, with global deaths from COVID-19 surpassing 781,000 at this writing, the pandemic reminds us every day of the fact of death.
Let’s redeem this crisis by showing the people we know the path to eternal life. Every person you meet today is one day closer to eternity than ever before.
Jim Denison, PhD, is the founder of Denison Forum with a reach of 1.8 million. He also serves as Resident Scholar for Ethics with Baylor Scott & White Health.
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