“Truly, O people in Zion, inhabitants of Jerusalem, you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you. Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” Isaiah 30:19-21
As Christians, we have to sit with discomfort. We proclaim the living Christ yet are met face to face with a world full of sin each day. Part of our baptismal call is the personal cross we take up to fight that sin and try to make the world better. We sit with the contradiction of living in a world full of love, yet one that is deeply sick. But right now it all feels unbearable.
While writing this, I can’t stop thinking about Quebec’s current crisis in long term care homes for the elderly (CHSLDs), which are currently ground zero for COVID-19. More than 1,000 of the 1,340 Quebecers who have died from COVID-19 are seniors in care. A CHSLD in Laval just reported a 100% infection rate of its 172 residents. Stories from front-line workers describe how infections spread like wildfire due to lack of protective equipment, improper training, and lack of staff. A doctor at the Jewish General described how patients being admitted from CHSLDs weren’t being admitted because of COVID-19 symptoms, but because of dehydration and malnourishment from lack of care. But these problems aren’t new.
The problems in CHSLDs have been known for years. A Gazette article from 2018 described how many CHSLD residents receive only a bath per week, some being forced to stay in their beds for up to 36 hours. I remember hearing stories from colleagues of mine doing their social work field placements in CHSLDs, describing impossible caseloads and no time to address the challenges the residents were facing. I remember when I learned that older adults are a higher risk group for suicide, often because of isolation and loss of autonomy that is exacerbated by these environments.
How did these problems arise? Larger provincial budget cuts combined with abysmal salaries, casualisation of work, and impossible caseloads created a perfect storm. But this isn’t unique to CHSLDs. The way our society has prioritized cost-cutting and profits over community and caring for the most vulnerable has affected everyone. Just
as Israel, which Isaiah addresses in this passage, turned away from God to worship other things, so too have we turned away.
I don’t believe that God sent COVID-19 (or any health crisis/disaster/etc.) to teach us a lesson. But I do believe that the massive faults in our healthcare and economic system that this crisis is highlighting has presented us with a horrific picture of our world that cannot be ignored.
I love the way God is described in the book of Isaiah. This is the God who levels mountains, who cuts through iron and bronze, who brings light into unimaginable darkness. This is the God who created the stars, who has understanding unknowable, who has love everlasting. At the same time that we are faced with a world of broken systems, we proclaim our faith in a God who is so much larger. This is the kind of faith that feels like a necessity for me right now. I need to believe that God is bigger than this pandemic, that together we can work collectively to heal our world. I need to believe that God is with us in our tears, our suffering, our isolation. I need to believe.
And I think that’s why this passage from the lectionary resonated with me so much today. These words of the prophet, speaking to terrified people, assuring them that God would be with them and would show them how to move forward, gives me hope that we can heal. Because though we’re confronted with a world in sin, each of us is called to make this world better. Alone, we can only do so much, but together in the Body of Christ, God can work through us in love.
I can’t change CHSLDs, or fix our healthcare system, or end capitalism. But I can pray, I can trust that God will show me how to show up today. And when I feel unsure, I remember these words from later on in Isaiah:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?