Who have we become

My daughter (Hanna) wrote the following poem. It gives some insight into some of the social effects that COVID-19 has brought on us. Enjoy!

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The phrase ‘social gathering’ 
Has been replaced by ‘social distancing’

It used to be a hug by which we would greet, 
But that has been replaced by staying apart six feet. 

The saying “the more the merrier” 
Has turned into “you could be a carrier.” 

We used to welcome each other with a smile, 
Which has been covered up by our masked lifestyle. 

The foundation of a relationship is conversations; 
Which are now muffled due to our regulations. 
—————————————-
What happened to our need for community? 
I guess it got lost in the search for immunity. 

What happened to our need to socialize? 
What happened to our ability to empathize? 

Our communication skills are nonexistent. 
And our friends have been so distant. 

The house once full of people has gone missing. 
I guess it’s just our new standard of living. 

Through all of this, we go on existing. 
—————————————-
The count of deaths came in, 
At an increasing 2 million. 

What that count fails to include, 
Is the number of people dying of solitude. 

As well as those who have become depressed,
Which has yet to be addressed. 

I’m sorry, but sound that I hate to hear, 
Is the sound of silence of no one there. 

But alas, everyone has their own opinions, 
Which has caused heart-breaking divisions.
—————————————-
I hope that we learn from this,
and that we will not miss, 

That one of the most important things
Is the joy that friendship brings. 

You see, I need you, and you need me,
Because that’s how we were made to be. 

I realize now more than ever, 
The joys of being together. 

Cases, cases, cases! What about deaths?

It seems to me that the media is more focused on COVID-19 cases than on COVID-19 deaths. I get it. The more cases there are, the more the virus will spread. The more the virus spreads, the more deaths will ensue.

However, the number of actual cases is difficult to determine, as many with the virus are never tested. Also, there are plenty of false-positives and false-negatives.  Add to that the many who are asymptomatic. It is practically impossible to measure the true number of COVID-19 cases. But in all the discussion about cases, many miss how the true impact of this virus must be measured in deaths.

But many are confused with the number of deaths that COVD-19 has caused. In mid-July, one Axios survey revealed that 1 in 3 Americans increasingly believe that the death toll numbers are inflated (Axios-Ipsos poll: The coronavirus death toll skeptics are growing – Axios). On the other end of the spectrum, a week later, another poll revealed that some Americans believe that 9% of the US population has died from COVID-19 (see page 12 of kekstcnc_research_covid-19_opinion_tracker_wave-4.pdf).

The confusion is understandable. I have heard from some who have witnessed intense pressure put upon medical workers to identify deaths as COVID-19. It has led many to doubt the reality of the threat of COVID-19. ,

Further, when the media reports COVID-19 deaths, they often omit the fact that only 6% of the COVID-19 related deaths are recorded as COVID-19 alone. An overwhelming 94% of COVID-19 deaths come with comorbidities. In other words, for the most part, people die WITH COVID-19, rather than FROM COVID-19. This is why the sickly are at high risk. COVID-19 seems to bring on an earlier-than-expected death of those with pre-existing conditions. Please be careful, this 6% figure has been mis-understood and mis-applied. Here’s one article that seeks to explain: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/09/01/fact-check-cdcs-data-covid-19-deaths-used-misleading-claims/5681686002/

So, how deadly is COVID-19? Is the reporting accurate? Can we trust the media?

Full disclosure: I’m not a health worker. I have no expertise with COVID-19. I’m a pastor, seeking to lead a local church through these trying times. With the vastness of differing opinions on these things, I have been compelled to search for objective facts in these matters.

So, I went to the source: the Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov).  I retrieved their data on the weekly number of all deaths since 2014 (to the present). The data can be found here: https://data.cdc.gov/NCHS/Weekly-Counts-of-Deaths-by-State-and-Select-Causes/muzy-jte6 and here: https://data.cdc.gov/NCHS/Weekly-Counts-of-Deaths-by-State-and-Select-Causes/3yf8-kanr.  When you compare the deaths of previous years to deaths this year, you can see the true effect that COVID-19 has had upon our society.

Here’s a graph I generated from the CDC’s data. I entitled it, “Deaths in America by Week.” Week 1 is the first week in January. Week 52 is the last week in December. Because of the lag in reporting deaths to the CDC, these numbers are current as of August 2020. Further, the numbers for 2019 and 2020 are identified as “provisional” by the CDC. I assume that this means the numbers may increase slightly as the CDC awaits reporting that lags for one reason or another.

The first thing that you notice in this graph is the spike in 2020.  Before addressing this spike, notice the general trend of all the years. America regularly experiences more deaths at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year. Presumably, this comes because of winter forcing us inside, where disease can spread easily. Further, note the high death rate at the end of 2017 (yellow) and at the beginning 2018 (light blue). This represents the effect of the 2017-2018 flu epidemic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017%E2%80%932018_United_States_flu_season). 

Let’s address the 2020 spike in the above graph. America has experienced significantly more deaths in 2020 than in other years. In some ways, this must be due to COVID-19, as this is the only major difference between 2020 and other years. This shows the undeniable impact of COVID-19. During the peak (week 15, mid-April), America experienced a 50% spike in deaths over normal.  Currently, America is hovering around 20% more deaths than normal on a weekly basis.

Of significance also in the graph above is the downward trend. Deaths in America are heading down toward normal levels. I can only surmise that this is because of the measures that our society has put in place, like social distancing measures, masks and closures. Furthermore, our medical workers have figured out better ways to treat the virus. Only God knows what the graph would have looked like had no action been taken. And we will find out whether the trend continues toward normal or toward another spike as we move indoors for the winter.

Of curious interest also is how the impact has varied from state to state.  Here are a few examples (with my comments):

I live in Illinois.  We have followed roughly the same course as the United States.

For all of its early troubles, New York has practically returned to normal death rates for months.

Arizona experienced a late surge (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/07/01/arizona-coronavirus-record-pence-visit-347105).

Despite some of the earliest and most stringent regulations, California still seems to be struggling.

Montana has been unfazed.

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Now, let’s work to the core question of this article: how many people have actually died of COVID-19 in America? To help answer that question, the graph below represents the death totals above average experienced in the United States in 2020 from week 12 (late March) an onward. I picked this week, because this is where we experienced the first noticeable spike in the number of deaths. The number represents the difference between total deaths in 2020 and the average number of total deaths from 2014-2019.  Because of the lag in data collection, this takes us through week 32 (mid August).

As you can see, this number is approaching 250,000!  These are the excess deaths of people in America in 2020. By mid-August, the press was typically reporting COVID-19 numbers in the 160,000-170,000 range.  Today, this number is approaching 200,000. In other words, the press (reporting CDC numbers) has been under-reporting the true impact of COVID-19 on deaths in America. You can see this under-reporting the graph below, where I have added the CDC death totals each week where COVID-19 is listed as one of the causes (or the only cause) of death.

The reason for the discrepancy in the lines above is that CDC reports a death as COVID-19 only if the deceased tested positive for COVID-19. But if a test was never conducted, COVID-19 cannot be recorded as a cause of death. So, many who died with COVID-19, but never were tested, are not included in the CDC number. Further, I can think of several scenarios where people didn’t die with COVID-19, but did die due to the impact of COVID-19 upon them. For instance, some suicides may have been caused by the isolation that came through quarantines. The same may be true of domestic abuse cases that have escalated to death when people have been forced to live closely with others without ability to separate. Also, some deaths may have come because of surgeries or treatments or ER visits that were postponed from fear of COVID-19 and other COVID-19 related pressures. Many other scenarios could be envisioned.

Regardless of how or why a person dies, the way to measure the impact of COVID-19 is to measure the number of deaths above average. So, COVID-19 is real. And the true numbers of excess deaths in 2020 are actually larger than the CDC has reported as official “COVID-19” deaths.

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As I have showed these graphs to some of my friends, their first question has often been, “How old are those who are dying?” I found some data here to answer the question: https://data.cdc.gov/NCHS/Weekly-counts-of-deaths-by-jurisdiction-and-age-gr/y5bj-9g5w/. Here are the graphs I produced from the data:

As you can tell, the graphs are looking quite similar to the first graph in this article, only in reducing numbers, corresponding to reducing age. That’s because, in general, more people die old. And most of the deaths from COVID-19 are older people as well.

__________

COVID-19 has made a real effect upon our country, perhaps even more than reported. Further, I think that the protective measures we have taken have helped to reduce the spread of infection, and as a result, death. I’m thankful to God for the adaptations that medical workers have made to treat patients with COVID-19.

Yet, to put things in perspective, using the 250,000 number of deaths and using 330 million for population of the United States, only 0.08% of Americans have died due to COVID-19.  That’s 1 in 1320 people.  For comparison’s sake, the Spanish flu (H1N1) pandemic of 1918 killed a conservative estimate of 550,000 Americans, out of a population of 103 million (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2740912/). This is 0.5% of the population.  That’s 1 in 200 people. We have a long way to go to match the devastation of that pandemic.

Watching Church

WatchingChurch

In these days of Coronavirus, churches have been unable to meet together physically. However, this has not prevented churches from seeking other alternatives. Most of the larger churches across our nation have simply live-streamed their worship services, encouraging those in the congregation to log in to watch church.

This means that across our land, worship bands are playing to empty auditoriums. And pastors are preaching to empty pews. All the while, people are at home, on their couches, idly watching the participants on the screen worship God and preach to them. Admittedly, something is lacking in this dynamic.

When people attend a worship service on a Sunday morning, they are able to engage. They can sing together with the throng. “I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you” (Psalm 35:18). They can amen the preacher. They can fellowship with those who attend the service.

In other words, worship services aren’t merely vertical toward God. They are also horizontal. You talk with people on the way in. You interact with people on the way out. You are encouraged by others. You seek to be an encouragement to others (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Sadly, all of this is lacking in the live-stream experience. We know this. There’s a big difference between watching church and being engaged in church.

A Sign of Love

Facemask

We are in the midst of fighting the coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 has spread rapidly around the world. We are currently doing all we can to stop the spread of the virus. This includes lockdowns and social distancing and face masks.

Historically, face masks have been used as means to prevent the getting the disease. However, due to the nature of COVID-19, this has changed. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that studies have revealed that “a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms (“asymptomatic”) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (“pre-symptomatic”) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms. This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms” (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover.html).

This means that we all need to change our perspective on face masks. Face masks are not just for those who want to prevent sickness. Face masks are also for those who might be sick and who might transmit COVID-19. Thus, “CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission” (ibid).

For face masks to be accepted in our culture, we need to begin understanding that those in public with face masks on are not trying to protect themselves, but are actually trying to protect others. In this way, they are actually showing love to all of us. Face masks are a sign of live.

This is similar to the cross of Christ. The cross was an emblem of sin and shame (Hebrews 12:2). Yet, Jesus went to the cross as an act of love for us. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). It was upon the cross that Jesus “bore our sins in his body” (1 Peter 2:24).

For those who don’t believe in Jesus, they need to change their perspective about the cross. It’s not a sign of sin and shame. It’s a sign of love.

We! (not me)

We-Not-Me

I pastor a small church (a little over a hundred people). This means that if any ministry is accomplished, it’s either me or one of our small group of volunteers. With this in mind, consider the representative conversations that I have had with some who attend larger churches.

  • “We sent missions teams to over a dozen nations last summer!”
  • “We go to the jail for ministry every Tuesday evening and every Saturday afternoon.”
  • “We planted three churches over the past decade.”

As a small church, we cannot possibly hope to do even a portion of these things. Our resources are simply too thin. Each if these things take much manpower to accomplish.

When I have inquired a bit, I have often found out that the one I’m speaking with has had no involvement in any of these ministries personally. They haven’t gone on a missions trip. They haven’t been to the jail. They haven’t even visited one on the churches that they planted. Yet, they have boasted in what “we” have done. The “we” in this case doesn’t mean “me.” It means “the church I attend.”

I think it’s great that the Lord uses larger churches to minister on a scale that smaller churches can only dream of doing. Yet there is a great danger to those who attend these churches. It can easily be the case that they are actually doing little, while thinking they are accomplishing some of these great things.

I guess my observations simply come as a warning to those who might think that they are doing great things for the Lord, while doing nothing. Just because their church is doing wonderful things doesn’t mean that they are doing anything. May they not be deceived.

Perspicuity

Perspecuity

Theologians often talk about “The Perspicuity of Scripture.” That is, the clarity of Scripture. Theologians use this phrase to explain how the Bible is plain for all to read and to comprehend.

To be sure, there are some passages in the Bible that are difficult to understand. Even Peter agrees on this point. He commented on Paul’s letters by saying, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). Further, there are many passages that speak of the spiritual blindness (Matthew 13:11-13; 1 Corinthians 2:14).

Yet, for the most part, the Bible is very easily read and understood. It is filled with many stories of heroes and villains, which are easily grasped by children. It tells plainly of how to be made right with God: through faith in Jesus.

How ironic that theologians have chosen such a difficult word (perspicuity) to explain how easy the Bible is to understand.

Betcha can’t eat just one!

BetchaCantEatJustOne

In the 1960’s the Frito-Lay company introduced it’s famous slogan, “Betcha can’t eat just one!” They popularized it by a very successful advertisement campaign both in print and on television.

We all have experienced it. We eat one potato chip and it tastes so good that we crave another one. This often leads to many more chips being consumed. There’s something about the fat and the seasonings on the chip lead us to crave more and more. Even when we aren’t hungry, once tasted, the chips can seem irresistible. It’s called “hedonic hyperphagia,” eating for pleasure.

The same is often true with sin. Rare is the time that we only commit one sin. Sin will often lead to more sin, either because we desire the pleasure or because we are forced to deal with the consequences.

This was the case with Adam and Eve. She sinned by eating the forbidden fruit. She further sinned by enticing her husband. They both sinned by trying to hide their sin from God. You can read about it in Genesis 3.

This was the case with king David. He sinned with Bathsheba. It didn’t stop there. It continued on with his cover-up plan. When Uriah didn’t go along with the plan, he ended up having him killed in battle. Then, more and more deceit as David refused to acknowledge his sin. You can read all about it in 2 Samuel 11-12.

The solution is to be aware of this tendency of our hearts and confess our sin quickly. David explained his trouble. “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long” (Psalm 32:3). But when he confessed his sin to the Lord (Psalm 32:5), he found great blessing (Psalm 32:1-2).

Show Me!

MissouriWelcomeSign

Willard Duncan Vandiver of Missouri served in the United States House of Representatives from 1897 to 1903. In the middle of his service, in 1899, he gave a speech at a naval banquet in Philadelphia in which he said, “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.” And ever since, Missouri has been known as, “The Show-Me State.”

In fact, it’s their state motto. They are known today as “The Show-Me State.” It’s an attitude that is held by those in Missouri. They are not a gullible people. Regardless of how fine-sounding your argument may appear, they won’t take your word for it. They need sufficient evidence to believe anything.

In this way, those from Missouri share a characteristic of a Biblical character named Thomas. He’s the one who has come to be known as “Doubting Thomas.” You might easily call him, “Thomas from Missouri.”

After the other disciples had seen Jesus, risen from the dead, He was the one who said, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). In effect, he said, “Show me!” Eight days later, he had the opportunity to see!

Truly, it was a great blessing to Thomas to be able to see and believe. Yet, the greater blessing belongs to those who believe without seeing. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Lighthouse

Lighthouse

A typical lighthouse is a tall tower built near dangerous coastlines to help those navigating boats near the shore. Before the days of GPS, they served an essential role for those at sea. They stood as a warning to ships approaching the shore, as maritime pilots could see the light on the shore. In times of low visibility, they were able to create sound using horns, bells or cannons. Another purpose was to provide a navigational aid, as those on the sea were able to identify them by their varying stripe patterns. They also provided light for navigating into shore.

In the same way, Jesus is our lighthouse. His words warn us. His words guide us. Jesus warns us of dangers self-righteousness (Matthew 23) and the vanity of pursuing the world (Matthew 16:26). Jesus guides us in the ways of life, safe in the harbor. How appropriate that Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Early MMA

mma

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a violent combat sport. It’s a mix of boxing and wrestling. Competitors begin each round on their feet, prancing around about like boxers. At some point, the fighters usually hit the ground in an all-out wrestling match to bring their opponent to submission.

Rules have changed in recent years to make the sport safer for its competitors. The sport used to be promoted as a “no rules, fight-to-the-death” match between competitors. To be fair, it wasn’t really “fight to the death.” And there were some rules. Biting and eye-gouging and hair-pulling and head-butting and groin-shots were all illegal. However, the brutality was very legal.

In the early days, competitors faced each other in an eight-sided cage (still do) with no judges, time limits or rounds. Every fight finished with a knockout, submission, or throwing in the towel. The fights were so violent, that in 1996 former Senator John McCain called the sport, “human cock-fighting” and sought to make it illegal in all 50 states.  As a result, rules have been implemented to make today’s sport less barbaric than it originated.

When Paul describes the spiritual battle that believers face against the demonic forces of the world, he likens it to a spiritual wrestling match. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

When we think of wrestling, we often think of the high school sport, where skinny boys grapple on a soft mat against each other. It is likely, however, that Paul was thinking of Pankration, an ancient form of wrestling very similar to the early days of MMA. Paul surely knew of the sport. Surely the violent nature of the spiritual battle that we face in the spiritual realm was in Paul’s mind, not the sanitized sport of wrestling today.  The devil hardly plays by the rules. So, when you read of the spiritual wrestling in Ephesians 6:12, the early years of MMA is probably a good image to have in mind.