I read this week about Stephen Harmon, who was a brother in Christ from Corona, California. I hope and expect that I might run into him in the New Jerusalem someday. Sadly, I won’t get to meet him here.
Stephen died last week from COVID-19, like 4 million other human beings in the world over the last year and a half. Stephen, of course, died in a place and time in which he could have been vaccinated against the disease. It was his choice — and of course never should have been anyone else’s — to not be vaccinated.
Stephen’s death attracted some media attention, I think, because of his faith and his outspokenness against being vaccinated. Seems like there was no small amount of schadenfreude in the coverage, to be honest. I don’t wish to pile on, or to reduce him to a caricature. To the extent that this might do so, I apologize. I can’t imagine the pain his family and friends and church are feeling. I didn’t know Stephen, and have no right to sit in judgement on him, nor any interest in doing so.
But I think I should say something about this.
In the hospital, three days before his death, Stephen tweeted, “If you don’t have faith that God can heal me over your stupid ventilator then keep the Hell out of my ICU room, there’s no room in here for fear or lack of faith!” He seemed to equate treatment for COVID with fear and/or lack of faith. Six weeks earlier he had tweeted adapted Jay-Z lyrics: “I got 99 problems, but a vax ain’t one.” Before he got sick, he shared memes that he trusted the Bible over Dr. Anthony Fauci; the fact that he seemed to think that a person couldn’t do both is troubling and discouraging. He tweeted earlier this month, “Biden’s door to door vaccine ‘surveyors’ really should be called JaCovid Witnesses. #keepmovingdork.”
Listen, I believe as strongly as anyone that God can heal COVID, or cancer, or high blood pressure, or presbyopia. Still, I wear reading glasses.
And I take medication for high blood pressure.
And I got the COVID-19 vaccine as early as I possibly could.
I got vaccinated in February. I don’t believe I’ve told even one person since then that they should definitely get the vaccine. That’s a choice you should make in consultation with your doctor. But that’s just the thing — I also read this post last week by an Alabama doctor. In it, she writes about the things her patients who are dying of COVID say; that they read a post or a meme or heard something from someone they trusted that kept them from getting the vaccine. This doctor asks them, “Did you ever talk to your personal physician about whether or not to get it?”
She says that not one of them has told her that they did.
So it’s your choice, but get the right advice. Not just partisan political statements or conspiracy theories or your second cousin’s pastor at The Church of Our Lady of the Aluminum Foil Hat. The right advice will come from someone who knows you and has a medical degree. The right advice will come from someone who ideally has treated you before and will know your medical history and will be able to advise you well. You won’t find it in some long-discredited social media post. It won’t be cute, it won’t be funny, and it won’t have a political agenda behind it. But it will be good advice from a doctor sworn to take care of your health and educated for that purpose.
And, now, please hear me when I say this —
Maybe you have good reasons for not getting vaccinated (though according to the medical community good reasons are few and far between). If your only reason for not getting the vaccine is that you think it means that you don’t have faith in God, then you do not have a good reason for not getting the vaccine.
I didn’t stop praying after I got the vaccine. I didn’t get the vaccine because I had a sudden crisis of faith that God could protect me from the virus. It seems that, most of the time, God works with our efforts. He usually doesn’t just miraculously feed the hungry. He doesn’t generally just implant the gospel in the minds and hearts of people. He doesn’t normally just instantaneously heal people with cancer. He could do those things. Apparently he does, from time to time. But mostly he works through people.
Caleb asked God to give him some hill country in Canaan — then he went out and took the hill country. David declined Saul’s armor before his fight with Goliath — but he did stop to pick up some rocks for his sling (and not just one rock). When Cornelius needed to hear about Jesus, God sent Peter to him. When Jesus wanted to feed the hungry, he asked the Twelve (and a boy with a boxed lunch) to take care of it.
James tells the elders of his community to “pray over” a sick person “and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.” He says, “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” Anointing with oil was a standard treatment for many illnesses in James’ time. (Think of the way the Good Samaritan treated the man’s injuries on the road to Jericho.) Prayer, of course, asks God to heal. Does God heal through the prayer, or through the treatment? Isn’t the answer to that question, “Yes”?
So why should it be tough to imagine that he might work through researchers and doctors and nurses and the vaccine they created (in a miraculous time frame) and administer to protect us from COVID?
When that nurse stuck that first needle in my arm, I said “thank you” to God for the researchers who had worked so long and hard to develop it, for the government that paid for it and rolled it out, and for the medical people who until then had been treating so many people for so long without a vaccine. But I thanked God because I believe he was behind it all.
And I want you to know why I got that vaccine. I got it because I wanted to be able to help take care of my community. I wanted to be able to minister to my church and not put them in danger. I wanted to be a responsible member of my community and contribute to its recovery. I wanted to be less likely to pass the virus on to someone whose health was already compromised. I wanted to give that virus one less host in whom it could mutate and become even more deadly.
None of this makes me a hero. It’s what’s expected when you're a part of a society. It’s part of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.
I can imagine someone who reads this getting mad at me right about here. Please just ask yourself: “What has he said that I disagree with?”
Talk to your doctor. Discuss it with people whose spiritual judgment you trust. Pray. Then do what God leads you to do. And if you live close to us, you can register here to get your vaccine this Saturday.