Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Faith Works 5-2-09
Jeff Gill

You’re Going To Die, Get Used To It

Nearly 100 people died of the influenza today.

And about that number the day before.

Oh, and last week? Same number. Or a month ago today, or this day last year.

Right, I’m not talking about the swine flu. Which sounds nasty, and I hope me and mine don’t get it.

What is clearly dangerous is influenza in general, which – news flash – affects the respiratory system in ways that doctors are still trying to fully understand. It’s a virus (which means antibiotics don’t do a lick of good) and we don’t know as much as we’d like, but we can identify new strains, new types of flu virus, through laboratory means.

In the labs, they talk about H1N1, but it takes a news story to come up “swine flu” or “bird flu,” neatly confusing people about whether you get it from eating those items (nope) or if you catch it from them (perhaps way back at the start, but not now).

There’s also no little confusion about the nature of the threat, hence my distinctly uncheery note to church-going folk of “you’re going to die, get used to it.”

Of course we don’t want to be casual about transmitting disease, and sick people and people with compromised immune systems – two often completely different categories! – should not be piled up next to each other. (And a hospital is where you do just that…)

What folks who are responsible for gathering and managing worship need to keep in mind is that there’s essentially nothing to learn here that we shouldn’t know and practice in general. Using “swine flu” as a way to focus attention isn’t all bad, but let’s not go pitching bathwater out upstairs windows without checking the contents, shall we?

First off, people who are coughing and sneezing shouldn’t go into public gatherings if at all possible. Masks? C’mon. Just stay home and keep using fresh tissues. We don’t need mass mask wearing (try that at the airport, ha ha), we need some common sense. And hand washing. Lots of hand washing.

Perfect attendance? Schools gently set most such recognitions aside for exactly this reason – good attendance plus (whatever) is worth rewarding, but awards or recognition for just showing up no matter what may not actually accomplish what you think. If it gets people who know they have a metabolism full of viruses to still go to church thinking “hey, I have a tissue in my pocket,” then you really aren’t promoting healthy anything, let alone healthy theology.

Inside the worship space and restrooms, keep tissues around. If you have relevant and meaningful worship going on, you’ll need ‘em for all kinds of reasons. Don’t be cheap or chintzy with ‘em, either: get ones that are better than sandpaper, and keep them stocked. I could go into detail here, but it may be your Saturday breakfast with the Granville Kiwanis or Jacksontown United Methodist folks I’m ruining, so I’ll just say – use a new one, and dispose of the old. Now.

Should we ditch “the passing of the peace”? Many introverts quickly say “Yes!” if not “Hallelujah!” For some, that can be the most excruciating five minutes of their week, not to mention the service; for extroverts, the grim smile and perfunctory handshake from others is a mystery to be solved by a big, long hug.

There’s a case to be made for siding with the introverts when public health situations are afoot, and any flu season, let alone swine flu, makes a case for inviting people to turn, smile (from a distance), and say “Peace be with you,” letting “and also with you” replace the warm, two-armed embrace, let alone big kiss on the cheek.

Before 1890, many Protestant denominations had a common cup for their communion practice – many congregations in Licking County, Presbyterian, Disciples, Baptist, UCC, Methodist, and so on, still have a pewter or maybe even silver pitcher and chalice . . . in their historical cabinet.

The advent of little cups for communion (shot glasses, say the disrespectful) was in the 1890s and a growing understanding of tuberculosis. A fascinating book, “The Gospel of Germs,” by Nancy Tomes (Harvard University Press), explains how the religion of hygiene collided, and ultimately ran over the theology behind a common cup.

Never mind that there is little or no data to show that you can get much of any disease from a common cup (especially if you use actual wine, a whole ‘nother debate).

The swine flu flap may just be a handy time for churches to tell the sick it’s OK to stay home, to stock up and keep clean the restrooms, and maybe lay in a few bottles of hand santizer next to the tissue boxes. Just in case.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’d like folks to keep in mind almost 3,000 people died today of malaria, but not where you see it on TV. Let him know what you worry about at, or follow “Knapsack” on Twitter.