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This timely response to a global pandemic was penned almost 500 years ago.

Sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther wrote almost 500 years ago about responding to pandemics. When Luther was confronted by questions about how to respond to The Black Death Plague, he responded in words that should serve to inform our approach to the pandemic crisis our nation and the world is now facing today.

In a letter to Rev. Dr. John Hess, found in Luther’s Works, Volume 43 p. 132, as “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague,” Luther writes:

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash no foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

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On the Sunday after Easter in 1945, a hastily assembled tribunal sentenced him to death. Hours later, in the predawn twilight, soldiers waited at his cell while he finished his prayers and removed his prison clothes. Then they led him to the gallows where he gave his life to the risen Lord.

Allied forces were rapidly approaching Berlin, and the Nazi’s were all but defeated. Only three weeks later, Hitler would kill himself and thus end the war. Regardless, the Fuehrer would have his revenge for Bonhoeffer’s part in the failed Valkyrie assassination attempt.

Some say that this fact disqualifies Bonhoeffer from the title of martyr. Pastors should not intrude into the political realm, they say. Most especially, they should not take up the sword. But those who say this misjudge both the nature of politics and the details of Bonhoeffer’s life.

Other notable German theologians, like Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, abandoned Germany for the safety of Switzerland and America, respectively. Bonhoeffer’s friends advised this, too, and arranged his passage to America. But when Germany made the first moves of war, he knew he could not abandon the German people to the Nazi regime.

“Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act,” said Bonhoeffer. Those who left their posts in Germany to criticize the Nazi regime from afar, gave up their birthright as German citizens. Bonhoeffer did not know what awaited him in Germany, only that he must be within its borders to live out his God-given vocation.

The speech and action that he had in mind was to train Lutheran pastors. However, that door was closed to him when he was conscripted into the Nazi army as an intelligence officer. Unable to escape this calling, his choice was narrowed by God. He could discharge his office faithful to God, or faithful to the Fuehrer.

Thousands of German officers were grappling with the same choice. Day in and day out, ordinary Germans who had been conscripted into the service of a madman were given hideous orders and forced to choose between God and man. Some disobeyed them and died. Others committed the atrocities under the cover of “duty” and “obedience to authority.” These, latter, bore the consequences of their actions as life-long scars on the conscience.

Bonhoeffer reasoned, “If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” This led to the choice of his life.

Generals and government ministers who understood their responsibility to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of a madman approached Bonhoeffer. They asked him to use his position to query the Allied forces secretly. The German officials wanted him to ask the Allies if they would spare the German people if the officials could remove Hitler from power to end his illegal war.

Simply by asking Bonhoeffer this question, they had placed him on the horns of a dilemma, and they had trusted their lives into his hands. His duty as a Nazi officer was to report this traitorous question to his superior officer. But what was his duty as a human being under God?

What would you do?

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Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House, London… empty (Photo: Arup)

“Music… in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Deprived of ‘live’ music in the time of coronavirus, performers, audiences and even critics seek ways to keep that fountain of joy alive. We may not be able to visit our opera houses and concert halls to hear our favorite artists perform live but now is the chance to catch up with all of that recorded music that we have never got round to listening to.

Not only is it a good time to show our support for artists by purchasing recordings (either in hard format or as downloads), but many organizations have rallied round and begun offering free online material through streaming or on regular channels such as YouTube. In fact, even without live performances, there is so much out there that the choice of what to listen to can be overwhelming.

In in the spirit of Bonhoeffer’s dictum, along with our own desire to be a guide to our readers, musicOMH’s classical team will be offering you a series of insights, commentary, and suggestions for listening, including:

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by Brian Rosner

I started 2020 with five New Year’s resolutions and seven anticipations, things I was eagerly looking forward to, such as special social occasions and travel. I won’t comment on my progress on the resolutions — my brother-in-law reckons New Year’s resolutions are a to-do list for the first week in January, and I don’t want to confirm his cynicism. But I will report that five of my seven anticipations have been canceled, with the two in November and December looking less likely every day.

For some of us, the personal cost of the coronavirus will be huge; for others less profound, but still troubling. But one form of suffering will afflict us all — namely, the experience of disappointment. With everything from meals out and sport to weddings and funerals being canceled, “cancel culture” is taking on a new meaning. No one will be immune from disappointments, the displeasure of having our anticipations unfulfilled.

For a case study in coping with disappointment in the context of isolation and social distancing, we find a surprising source of help in Dietrich Bonhoeffer — the pastor, author and church leader who was active in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

Bonhoeffer’s life story is a mixed genre. It started out like a fairy tale. Born in 1906 to a prominent German family, Bonhoeffer was a tall man, possessing an athletic physique and a round boyish face. With his mother’s blue eyes and blond hair, he perfectly fit Hitler’s Aryan stereotype. But any affinity between Bonhoeffer and the Third Reich stopped there.

With the rise to power of Hitler in 1933, Bonhoeffer’s fairy tale took a dangerous turn, transforming into a spy thriller. His opposition to National Socialism began early, when Bonhoeffer gave a radio broadcast on the dangers of charismatic leadership. It was abruptly ended by government censure. For the next ten years, Bonhoeffer worked for the good of his nation, eventually operating as a double agent. Employed by the Abwehr, a division of German Intelligence, Bonhoeffer used his contacts outside of Germany to support the insurgency. A man of impeccable integrity, Bonhoeffer also functioned as the conscience of the conspirators, commending their moral courage and bolstering their resolve.

Along with the spy thriller, Bonhoeffer’s life was a tragic love story. In June 1942 Dietrich met Maria von Wedemeyer. Maria was beautiful, poised, cultured and filled with vitality, but only eighteen years of age — fully seventeen years younger than Dietrich. Bonhoeffer and Maria fell in love. Maria’s father had been killed on the Russian Front and her mother insisted on a year’s separation to test the couple’s feelings. But Maria convinced her mother otherwise and in January 1943, with some restrictions in place, they were engaged to be married. Unfortunately, “happily ever after” is not the way their story ended.

Two key aspirations of Bonhoeffer’s life — the renewal of the German church and people and his plans to marry his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer — were both cruelly thwarted. In 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo, incarcerated for two years, and finally executed at the order of Adolf Hitler.

If some disappointments are mild, Bonhoeffer’s were crushing. How did Bonhoeffer handle his disappointments? Although he wrote a number of books, the answer to this question is found in the remarkable letters to and from his parents, relatives, fiancée and above all his best friend Eberhard Bethge, collected and published in the now classic volumes Letters and Papers from Prison and Love Letters from Cell 92. With social isolation ahead for all of us, at least in a physical sense, Bonhoeffer’s prison musings offer sage advice and salient lessons.

First, focus on what really matters. According to Bonhoeffer not all disappointments are equal. He urged an ordering of priorities:

There is hardly anything that can make you happier than to feel that you count for something with other people. What matters here is not numbers, but intensity. In the long run, human relationships are the most important thing in life. God uses us in his dealings with others. Everything else is very close to hubris.

In the strange world of physical distancing, we do well to remember that we don’t have to be relationally distant. There are still ways to cultivate community that don’t involve getting up close and personal physically.

Second, stay cheerful. Bonhoeffer wrote to his fiancée Maria: “Go on being cheerful, patient and brave.” And he told Bethge to “spread hilaritas.” Even amid hardship, a joyful optimism can prevail. Cheerfulness was in fact one of Bonhoeffer’s abiding qualities despite the horrors of prison. In his famous prison poem, “Who am I?” the opening stanza reads: “They often tell me I would step from my cell’s confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.”

Indeed, Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison are surprisingly dotted with glimpses of humour. He quips: “Prison life brings home to one how nature carries on uninterruptedly its quiet, open life, and it gives one quite a special, perhaps a sentimental, attitude towards animal and plant life, except that my attitude towards the flies in my cell remains very unsentimental.” Bonhoeffer and Bethge wrote back and forth over the naming of Bethge’s first child. When the name “Dietrich” was floated, Dietrich wrote back to the couple amusingly: “You still seem to be thinking of ‘Dietrich’. The name is good, the model less so.”

Perhaps those corny coronavirus memes scattered across social media serve a purpose. In Bonhoeffer’s case cheerfulness was no accident of temperament; it was born of his unshakeable confidence in God: “I’m travelling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I’m being led. My past life is brim-full of God’s goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified.”

Third, embrace optimism. Bonhoeffer’s approach to prison life was not to allow the confinement to restrict his activity. Quite literally, he did not sit still while waiting for his hope for freedom to materialize:

I read, meditate, write, pace up and down my cell — without rubbing myself sore against the walls like a polar bear. The great thing is to stick to what one still has and can do — there is still plenty left — and not to be dominated by the thought of what one cannot do, and the feelings of resentment and discontent.

This is good advice for anyone facing the frustrations of an ongoing disappointment and restrictive circumstances.

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Puritan ministers cared for the sick and dying during the Great Plague of London in 1665. Their service later inspired Charles Spurgeon's response to the Cholera Outbreak of 1854.

Puritan ministers cared for the sick and dying during the Great Plague of London in 1665. Their service later inspired Charles Spurgeon’s response to the Cholera Outbreak of 1854.
THE SPURGEON CENTER

As reports of the coronavirus spread around the world, pastors and church leaders are discussing how they should respond to the outbreak. Throughout church history, many pastors have had to think through similar challenges. As a young village preacher, Charles Spurgeon admired the Puritan ministers who stayed behind to care for the sick and dying during the Great Plague of London in 1665. Now in the fall of 1854, the newly called pastor of the New Park Street Chapel in London found himself pastoring his congregation amid a major cholera outbreak in the Broad Street neighborhood just across the river.

How did Spurgeon respond?

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The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

By John M. Barry

What you’ll learn

Until recently, the idea of a pandemic took most people’s imagination to Hollywood thrillers and the Black Plague that ravaged medieval Europe. But the most devastating plague to ever strike the human race took place a century ago, during the First World War. This story contains many lessons for how—and how not—to handle a pandemic. Barry’s tie-ins to our own day (most recent edition published in 2018) have an eerily prophetic ring to them in light of the corona virus that has recently swept the globe.

Read on for key insights from The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.

1. The 1918 influenza virus targeted young adults, and killed far more than the Black Plague or AIDS.

It was in the fall of 1918 that a group of sailors from the United States began presenting never-before seen symptoms that baffled clinicians. The presenting symptoms were bleeding in the nose and ears, pounding headaches, painful body aches, deep coughs (sometimes deep enough to tear abdominal musculature), and, finally, skin turning blue.

The medical professionals called in Paul Lewis, a lieutenant commander and a medical doctor who was more familiar with death in all its varieties than just about anyone alive at the time. He was also brilliant. More than a few colleagues—accomplished scientists in their own rights—called Lewis the most brilliant man they’d ever met.

Lewis was highly accomplished and still young. When polio had ravaged New York, he was part of the group that proved a virus was the culprit. And then he developed a vaccine that proved 100 percent effective in animal trials. He’d also founded a research institute in affiliation with University of Pennsylvania. Though Lewis was an accomplished man of science and familiar with death and all its friends, he was still baffled by the bodies of dying, blue-skinned sailors. He’d seen something similar among British soldiers weeks earlier, something influenza-like, but he wasn’t sure.

Whatever it was that the sailors who came through Boston to Philadelphia had brought with them that fall, it spread. Despite the best attempts of medical personnel to contain the unknown disease, it spread from the 19 soldiers to 87, and then to 600 within just a few days. Hospitals ran out of beds quickly and had to involve other medical facilities to care for the sick sailors and the civilians with whom they’d come in contact. Simultaneously, the same symptoms began showing up all over the world. This wasn’t a passing rash of influenza going around as doctors in the United States and Europe had thought. It was actually the second wave of a mild influenza that had appeared months earlier in America’s heartland. It was not nearly as devastating then, in symptoms or spread. The second, far more pernicious infection was spreading like wildfire in the fall of 1918, affecting not just sailors in New England, but also soldiers in the British Raj in India, and everywhere in between.

And so, as the Great War continued to rage, another war had begun. It wasn’t just a fight of nation against nation, but also of nation against some unknown disease. It began in a small town in the United States in the spring of 1918, but had laid dormant. But between the fall of 1918 and 1920, millions died. Of those who contracted influenza and succumbed, their deaths were swift and painful.

Earlier estimates put the death toll at 21 million, but this is now considered a low ball. More widely accepted estimates from epidemiologists are between 50 and 100 million. The majority of these deaths took place within a half-year window, during the fall and winter of 1918. The disease killed more people in a year than ever died in the medieval Black Plague or from AIDS.

What made this pandemic even more tragic was that it was the young (people in their 20s and 30s) who were especially vulnerable to the pathogen. If the higher estimates are accurate, that means the 1918 influenza took out about 10 percent of young adults on the planet.

The 1918 outbreak marked a milestone in human history. It was the first time that modern medicine and nature had challenged each other in such a robust way. The virus that led to the infamous Bubonic Plague 700 years earlier was a far milder strain, but it still decimated Europe because science and infrastructure couldn’t put up any real fight. This time, it was different, and it was the individuals who retained poise and calm in the midst of dire circumstances who stopped the bleeding and kept the catastrophe from being any more grim than it already was.

2. Only a few scientists saw the world’s vulnerability to epidemics and began planning accordingly.

Around the time of the pandemic, there were a number of remarkable people who had helped bring medical practices and research to the cutting edge. There are some areas of study where, even a century later, medical practitioners remain indebted to these forebears’ expertise and the skills they developed in a time of influenza. Paul Lewis was one of those geniuses. Another was William Henry Welch, who founded the first academic program devoted to public health in 1916 at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Still, it took tremendous time and dedication to make medicine a modern, scientific pursuit. Until the late-1800s, the field of medicine had changed very little since the days of Hippocrates in ancient Greece. Even until 1900, only one medical school in five required a high school diploma in the United States, and only one medical school required a college degree for admission. Many applicants without any serious training in the physical sciences were admitted, simply by proving that they could pay tuition. Degrees were doled out to men (women were not admitted) simply for passing all the classes—even if they had never touched a body or seen a patient.

Eventually, medical practice began to improve and become more empirically verified, first in Europe and then in the United States. United States medical science was the worst in the developed world before it became the best.

William Henry Welch was a forerunner who helped bring the massive and much-needed changes to the United States’ medical education. Welch was a capable scientist, physician, and professor, but his strength lay in his ability to inspire. He was a charming and charismatic individual. The students he taught at Johns Hopkins adored him and would become the most coveted in the United States. These Welch protégés formed an army of elites who would become more desperately needed than they knew in 1918. Welch was a man who convinced people that improvements in the American medical field were horribly overdue, and he provided a road map for how to get there, as well as a prestigious group of medical professionals to navigate it.

Welch’s influence revolutionized medicine in the United States, but another thing that  made Welch singular was that he saw what most everyone else had missed: humanity’s vulnerability to epidemics. He had noticed the trend that every time the United States went to war, disease killed far more combatants than the opposing armies. Moreover, war had a way of spreading illness. These facts led Welch to predict that, with the Great War on, it was just a matter of time before some kind of epidemic broke out.

Welch had pushed Johns Hopkins for a public health program since the 1880s, and he finally got his wish in 1916 when the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health was founded. This was just two years before the influenza began to emerge. He saw that robust public health (of which epidemiology, or the study of disease, is a central feature) was the best way to save lives. He was right, and his intuition holds true to this day.

3. The 1918 influenza began in Kansas, but it was quickly exported to the rest of the world, infecting hundreds of millions.

The influenza outbreak of 1918 most likely began in Haskell County, Kansas. There are other theories that it began in China or Vietnam or France, but the United States is the most probable starting point, and there’s no earlier record than from Haskell County. The virus drifted from Haskell to a nearby military base, when it was still tame in comparison to what was to come. Not much more was said about the outbreak than a forgettable health notice about “influenza of severe type” the Midwest. From there, the virus worked its way through the ranks of soldiers and was then exported to other U.S. bases and the various war theaters across Afro-Eurasia. It came roaring back to America in the fall of 1918, in the previously mentioned New England cities.

What makes influenza dangerous is that it’s caused by viruses—not bacteria (a discovery that one of William Henry Welch’s many protégés made). It’s not quite an organism, but it’s not as lifeless as a chemical compound either. Its mission is to replicate, but it cannot do so apart from a host. It needs an organism’s cells in order to make thousands or even hundreds of thousands of self-copies.

What makes influenza viruses unique is that they are extremely infectious and competitive. Influenza viruses set off all the body’s warning bells, and the immune system sets up defenses based on what the body has already encountered. But a new variation of the virus is unknown to the body, and attacks a compromised and blind immune system. The body beats down any other viruses that might be present, and then, once all other familiar viruses have been eliminated, the new influenza virus begins its work.

The United States was unprepared for the pandemic for a variety of reasons.

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by Rev. Dr. Peter Walker, Principal, United Theological College

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed on the order of Heinrich Himmler seventy-five years ago in a Nazi concentration camp in Flossenburg, only days before its liberation, in April 1945. Bonhoeffer had known from the age of sixteen that he wanted to study theology. He died having fully expended himself in that calling. And in so doing, he has become an inspiration to generations of Christians. As his gravestone reads: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Witness to Jesus Christ.

In 1935, Bonhoeffer accepted a call from the Confessing Church, an alliance of faithful resistance to Nazism, to lead an underground seminary for its pastors. There, in Finkenwalde, he wrote Life Together in 1938. Now a devotional classic, Life Together was first of all a guide to life in Christian community – a reflection for his underground seminarians. Within it, Bonhoeffer explores the joy and struggle of community lived in and through Jesus Christ; a spiritual and even divine reality, manifest in human fellowship, and marked by Bible reading, communal singing, sharing a table, prayers, and daily work.

Yet the central chapter of this beautiful book about being together is titled ‘The Day Alone’.

Hearing the voice of God

Bonhoeffer writes, ‘Let those who cannot be alone beware of community’. The noise and activity of life together may crowd out the voice we sometimes need to hear alone, the voice we might sometimes only hear alone – the voice of God.  Yet with a balancing wisdom, Bonhoeffer follows soon after with its opposite. “The reverse is also true”, he writes. “Let those who are not in community beware of being alone”. The voice which speaks out of the silence to our inner-most self, calls us into the community of Christ’s disciples.

Bonhoeffer wanted his seminarians to understand the connection between silence and our ability to hear the still small voice of God which animates our faith; to understand “the essential relationship of silence to the Word.” And, he wanted them to understand that time together and time alone are both essential to Christ’s community. Time with others enriches our time alone, and time alone enriches our time with others. “The day together will be unfruitful without the day alone”, Bonhoeffer writes. And conversely, “After a time of quiet, we meet others in a different and a fresh way”.

“Only in this fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone, and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship. It is not as though the one preceded the other. Both begin at the same time, namely, with the call of Jesus Christ.”

COVID-19 and ‘the day alone

COVID-19 has brought a form of ‘the day alone’ upon us all. In reality, it will be much more than a day. We are beginning a time of relative solitude that will last for weeks and may hold for months.

Notwithstanding our heartbreak for those to whom this virus brings suffering, for whom we must do all we can in love, I suspect Dietrich Bonhoeffer would encourage us, as individuals and as the church, to embrace this time alone. Embrace it for meditation on the scriptures. Embrace it as an opportunity to be intentional in our listening for God. That will not be easy, and we will need to be patient. Yet we have time. What is God saying to you? What is God saying to this church?

Embrace this mandated time apart as a time for prayer.

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asian american

Pastor Ray Chang and Dr. Michelle Reyes have collaborated with leaders across the U.S. to combat the rising racism against Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic. Under the umbrella of the Asian American Christian Collaborative (AACC), these leaders have released the “Statement on Anti-Asian Racism in the Time of Covid-19.”

“We call for an immediate end to the xenophobic rhetoric, hate crimes, and violence against our people and communities,” write the authors. “We invite all Americans to join us in combating these contagions and work with us for the welfare of all.” The authors go on to say:

In the last two weeks of March 2020, Asian Americans have reported nearly 1,000 incidents of racism, and without mitigation, we expect that number to rise in the weeks ahead. Many of these were violent attacks against life and human dignity, and many more incidents have gone unreported.

The statement recalls previous incidents of racism against Asian Americans in the U.S. during World War II, as well as the racism Middle Eastern Americans experienced following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Noting the two greatest commandments to love God and neighbor, the authors write,

We urge you to speak without ambiguity against racism of every kind. Faithful Christian witness requires anti-racist work, and silence only perpetuates the sins not addressed. This includes going beyond shallow acknowledgement of the most obvious incidents of racism to taking responsibility in confronting the longstanding tendencies of people to discount and dismiss the realities of racism. It also includes addressing the disbelief and disobedience of your constituents who continue to ignore members of the body of Christ who are in pain and under threat.

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