Bear One Another’s Burdens

“Ew yuck” my daughter announced, “Mommy, Simon has a stinky bum.”

“He does? I don’t smell anything,” I said, as I gave my son a proper pants check. Looking in, I saw it. She was right – toddler noses tell all. But my nose… my nose smelled nothing.

Let me repeat that: my nose smelled nothing. I bent in closer for a smell. (Don’t even judge me). I couldn’t smell it.

As I changed the stinky-to-everyone-else-diaper, I felt panic arise in me. I had a terrible head cold. I’d had it a few days – mucus and a headache. My son had given it to me, lovingly wiping his cute snotty nose on me. He was fine, and I was fine except for the mucus … and now the fact that I couldn’t smell.

I went into the kitchen to see if I could taste. I grabbed a cookie from the cookie jar. I bit in.

I couldn’t taste it. It felt like paper in my mouth.

Immediately, I was in full-on panic mode. Was this cold actually COVID? Had I given it to others? In my panic, I ran my brain ran through everywhere I’d been that week. My husband and my children in our home, of course. Our children at daycare – that’s children, teachers, and all their families. Lunch with a friend – who works and has older parents. A visit with my parents – who’d then seen my brother and his family. A playdate – that’s another family and all the people they’d seen. Fortunately, I thought, my breath slowing a bit, I am on sabbatical from church, so I couldn’t have exposed our church family.

While my brain raced through all the possibilities, my husband came in. As he saw me taking bites of everything in our fridge, he brought me back from the edge of the cliff. “Okay. Okay. Let’s think about this for a second. You have a head cold. You are probably just too stuffed up to smell and taste well. Try this.” He handed me a bottle of lemon juice. “If you can’t taste this, then we’ll schedule a COVID test.”

I squirted lemon juice directly into my mouth.

“YUCK!” I yelled!

As the lemon juice taste permeated my mouth, my phone dinged. A friend suggested I try hot sauce. (Yes, I had also messaged a few friends while panicking and eating through my fridge – I’m an awesome multi-tasker). I threw back the hot sauce.

“Holy moly! I taste THAT!”

Now there I was standing in my kitchen, snotty-nosed, with the taste of lemon juice and hot sauce in my mouth. Take it from me, dear friends: Do not try this at home. That’s a taste combo that never goes away.

I was fine. This happened a few weeks ago, and my cold cleared up quickly after that (maybe it was the hot sauce and lemon juice cure! No really, do not try that.) Yet, as the delta variant surges and COVID cases rise, I’ve been thinking about that particular moment of panic lately. I’ve been thinking about it as our churches, communities, states, and country wrestle with masking in schools, vaccine mandates, and the reinstatement of mask mandates. As I witness all this suffering, grief, division, and strife, I keep thinking of that moment when I couldn’t smell or taste. I keep thinking of those few moments when I truly thought I had COVID. I keep thinking of the panic I had about the people I may have exposed. Though mostly, I’ve been thinking about the one person I didn’t think about: myself. In those cookie-crazed moments, I wasn’t picturing myself sick; I was picturing my loved ones sick. I was thinking about my beloved community.

Now, I don’t say this to brag about how unselfish I am – trust me I’m just as selfish as the next person. (Though this potentially gives a bit of insight into my struggle with self-care – a topic for another day). Instead, I say this because I do venture to believe this is what most of us think when confronted with a scary situation. Our first instinct is to protect those we love. It’s an instinct, a muscle, an involuntary reaction. Something scary happens and we think, “Oh my children! Oh my partner! Oh my parents! Oh my pets!” Our human instinct is to protect first those we love.

As I look out on our society right now – parents fighting at school board meetings, governors blocking school mask mandates, people screaming about their person freedoms – I implore us to think about that first initial protection instinct. We need to have the same protective instinct for our communities that we have for our families. We are all in this mess together. We have to get in it together if we want to get out of it at all. If we do not choose community responsibility, the consequences are dire.    

We’ve heard a lot about personal freedoms and personal choices lately. I have the right to choose. I have the right to decide. We as Americans put a lot of emphasis on individual rights. I, of course, agree that we all have rights and choices and individual freedoms. What needs to be shouted from the roof tops is this: freedoms and choices all come with responsibilities and consequences. Every choice we make has an effect, directly or indirectly, on someone else. Very few choices are ours alone. This is especially true as we globally face the Delta Variant of COVID-19. Every single choice we make – from masking to vaccinations to socialization to where we go and who we see – affects someone else; affects entire communities. Sometimes in life, things are about “me.” Right now, this is about “us.” All of us.

As a Pastor, I’ve had many conversations with folks in the last year about the COVID-19 vaccine. While the majority of people I know are vaccinated, I’ve also had in-depth conversations with those who aren’t, or aren’t yet. Some have had adverse reactions to vaccines in the past and are rightly hesitant to subject themselves to another shot. Some are (or were) waiting for full FDA approval. Some just want to see how things play out before scheduling their appointment. Some have simply said, “It’s my choice. I’m healthy and I’ll be fine if I get COVID.”

It’s that last one that I – as pastor, mom, spouse, community member, and servant of Jesus Christ – want to push back on. While it might be true that a single healthy individual might be “fine”, it’s also true that getting the vaccine protects our communities more than it protects ourselves. Every person who gets vaccinated gives protection to their “bubble.” Every person who gets the vaccine, protects one more vulnerable individual. So I say this: Dearest child of God, you do have a choice: choose your community. Choose others. Choose to protect the most vulnerable. Choose love. Choose safety. Choose to bear one another’s burdens. Choose what Jesus would do. If you cannot get the vaccine for whatever reason, choose to mask, socially distance, and stay home. Choose community responsibility. We cannot do this at all unless we choose to do it together. Choose wisely.

This not about me. It’s about us. Let me say that again. This is not about you. It’s about us.

The Apostle Paul really gets to the heart of this when he speaks to the Galatian Church, who are also being torn apart by disagreements and division. He puts forth a few difficult truths, which he holds in tension:

“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads. Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher. Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” – Galatians 6:2-9

We often pull-out singular verses from this passage, but Paul intended them to stand together. Bear one another’s burden – Test your own work – Carry your own load – Reap what you sow – Do not weary in doing the right thing – Work for the good of all. Those all belong together. What Paul is pleading with us is this: we belong to each other; our personal decisions matter to our community and to our God. If we bear only our own burden, we reap what we sow. If we bear one another’s burden, then we reap a harvest together.

We belong to each other and as such our decisions matter to each and every one of us. The choices we make might affect someone we don’t even know about – a social responsibility butterfly effect, if you will. For example, a school district 350 miles away from me made a decision last night which directly affects me. Two children I love – with no virtual option available and no vaccine eligibility – will now be attending a “masks recommended, but not required” school. They regularly see their grandparents. Those grandparents regularly see their other grandchildren, who are my children. When the school board made this decision, they weren’t thinking how it might affect a family in New Jersey, or a church in Ohio, or a nursing home in West Virginia. But the truth is, it does, and it will. The choices we make are not “mine” they are “ours.”   

My dearest friends, I pray for God to guide you, your family, and your community in your choices. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all” (Galatians 6:9-10).

And I can’t stress this enough: don’t drink hot sauce and lemon juice.

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