It has been truly a strange sight to watch “the city that never sleeps” settle into a collective slumber over the past week. The lights on Broadway went dark. The largest public school system in the nation closed. A city that thrives on eating out and night life closed its restaurants and bars, except for takeout and delivery. And a city of 8.5 million people was asked to stay home, except for essential workers.
Of course, the reason for these drastic measures is an attempt to slow a steadily increasing number of COVID-19 patients, who are flooding into NYC hospitals. Each day, the number grows. As I write this article today, on March 23, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in New York State is 20,875, with 12,305 of those in NYC. That number will continue to grow over the coming days and weeks, and sadly, the number of deaths will as well.
The situation in NYC hospitals hits particularly close to home for me, as our congregation in Brooklyn has several healthcare workers who work in hospitals, including my own wife. Many of them have expressed deep concerns about the preparedness of NYC hospitals for the coming flood of COVID-19 patients. Hospitals here have suspended visitations, and some are even extending that to the birthing partners of women in labor. My wife and I are expecting a baby boy, who is due April 30, right around the time when the COVID-19 outbreak has been predicted to peak here in NYC.
So, if I’m honest, there are days when I feel overwhelmed by the possibility of what the next month or two may hold. Will members of our congregation contract the virus? Will I be able to be present with my wife when she gives birth to our son? Will NYC hospitals reach capacity and be forced into the same dilemmas we’ve seen in Italy—deciding who to admit and who to turn away? What will happen to lower-income workers who no longer have a steady paycheck, but who still need to pay rent and feed their families?
In the midst of these questions, I find myself identifying with Jesus’ disciples in Mark 4:35-41, when they were caught up in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Fishermen who were used to navigating rough waters suddenly felt powerless in the face of this furious squall. And when they looked to Jesus for help, he was asleep on a cushion. They cried out, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
There are times when we may wonder if Jesus is asleep while we’re going through a storm. We pray fervently for an end to the pandemic, for protection and peace, but circumstances only seem to be getting worse. Does God care if we drown? Why doesn’t he calm the storm?
In the face of a truly world-wide pandemic that has come incredibly close to home for most of us, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by fear and doubt. And although much of the external activity around us has come to a halt and we are sheltering in our homes, for many of us (including me), it is difficult to truly rest. We look at Jesus asleep on the cushion and don’t understand why he isn’t running around, watching the news, scrolling through social media, hoarding toilet paper, and frantically trying to control this virus, along with the rest of us.
Psalm 121:3 says, “He who watches over you will not slumber.” Maybe Jesus was able to sleep in the boat because he knew his Heavenly Father wasn’t asleep. Maybe we can rest in our homes and sleep at night, even in the midst of this pandemic, because the God who watches over us will not slumber.
I don’t know what the next weeks or months will look like for my family, our congregation, NYC, or the rest of our nation. I don’t know how many lives the coronavirus will claim. But I am holding onto the truth that the same Jesus who stayed in the boat with his disciples during the storm will not abandon us in the midst of our storm. He who bore the ultimate storm of sin and death on the cross for us will carry us through to the other side—yes, through this pandemic, but ultimately, through the storm of death that each of us will face one day.
So, tonight, I will embrace the stillness that has been thrust upon our City. I will lay my head down on my pillow, resting in the fact that our God will not slumber nor sleep, so it’s OK if I do. Tomorrow, I will look for creative ways to love my neighbor, to proclaim the Gospel, and to care for my family and congregation in this new context. I will pray for our healthcare workers, for the sick, for the dying, for the anxious, for those who mourn. But tonight, I will rest in the loving and strong arms of the one who quieted a storm with a single command. I will rest in the grace of one who loves me even when I am overwhelmed with fear. And I will trust that he will carry us through this storm and many others until he returns to silence the storms of this broken world for good.
Rev. Andy Olsen is Pastor of 59th Street Lutheran Brethren Church in Brooklyn, New York.