Whether we know it or not, some of us are about to be asked to a “canary in a coal mine.”
While that phrase is probably familiar to many of my friends from coal country, let me offer you some brief historical background. In the years before more advanced technology, the people who dug wells, mined coal, and worked underground often ran the risk of being overcome by carbon monoxide or other toxic, but odorless, gasses. To defend themselves, these laborers began to carry small birds, often a canary, with them underground. Since the birds were small, they would be overcome by the presence of toxic gases, or simply a lack of oxygen, before their, much larger, humans owners would. These underground laborers knew that if the canary lost consciousness and fell off its perch, they were already on borrowed time and needed to head for the surface.
That brings us to this present Coronavirus pandemic, social distancing, and for my purposes, church worship. Soon, as state health advisories are relaxed, church members will begin to ask, or even press, for pastors to resume congregational worship. Some churches in our area have already set a date, in the next couple of weeks, to do so. Certainly, we will do things differently. We will offer hand sanitizer, our staff will be dizzily disinfecting everything in sight, we will space ourselves out in the sanctuary, we will refrain from shaking hands, and we might even eliminate singing for a while.
But should we?
I know what our congregation looks like, as well as all those parishes in which I have served and been a member or regular attender. And all of them were, and are, full of wonderful saints who belong to any number of vulnerable populations. Our churches are full of mature citizens, elderly persons, cancer patients, a variety of immune suppressed brothers and sisters, as well as those suffering from asthma, heart and kidney disease, and other health issues. Opening our churches for congregational worship puts all these vulnerable friends at risk.
Think about your own friends, family and other saints in your church.
Which of them would you choose to bury before year’s end?
I’m certain that, like me, you’d like to avoid that.
But by rushing to be first, by opening as soon as we are “allowed” to do so, or as soon as state or denominational health advisories are relaxed, we are volunteering to be the “canary in a coal mine.” Like those coal miners, we don’t have the technology to measure our safety. We don’t have a test, or a meter, or a buzzer that will tell us when it’s not safe.
As reasonable as the voices around us may sound, everyone is guessing.
We think… that it’s probably… safe.
But the people who tell you that it’s probably safe will be watching the churches that go first to see what, if anything, happens. And, as sincere as they might be, and as reasonable as their voices may sound, they won’t be the ones burying your friends, family, and saints of the church. You will.
I miss our church family. I miss our community. I miss our hugs, and handshakes, and covered dish dinners. I miss the choir, and coffee and donuts, and everything else.
I completely understand why you would want that back. I do too.
But whomever goes first, is volunteering to be the canary.
And it’s worth remembering that, for the canary, it doesn’t always end well.
Like you, I look forward to welcoming our community of faith into the church sanctuary again. I long for a return to “normal.”
But I have no desire to be first.
My friends, my family, and my church are far too valuable to be used as a lab experiment to see if it’s truly as safe as some bureaucrat, government official, or scientist thinks it is.
You can volunteer to be the canary if you want to.
Feel free to go first.
But I’m in no hurry.
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