Leonard Pitts: Sometimes, faithful make faith a gauntlet

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 12, 2020

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”

— John 3:16

So one day, the skies crack open and a deluge falls upon this small town. Soon, the waters rise, and the streets become impassable. And this preacher kneels on the front steps of his church and prays for deliverance. A man in a canoe happens by.

“Jump in, preacher! The waters are rising fast.”

“No,” calls the preacher. “I have faith in the Lord. He will save me.”

The storm continues to pound the town and the waters to rise. The preacher has to move his prayer to the balcony. A man in a motorboat comes by. “Get in, preacher. The levee is not going to hold!”

Still the preacher resists. “No,” he says. “I have faith in the Lord. He will save me.”

The levee breaks. Water cascades through the town. The preacher is forced to climb the church steeple. He clings there, praying. A woman in a helicopter lowers a ladder. “Grab hold, preacher!” she calls.

Still the preacher will not move. “I have faith in the Lord. He will save me.”

So the preacher drowns. When he gets to heaven, he confronts his maker. “Lord, I had faith in you,” he says. “Why didn’t you save me?” And the Lord says, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?”

That is, yes, an oldie but goodie. If you’ve spent any time in Christian circles, you’ve probably heard it before.

Still, there is a certain wisdom in that chestnut that feels appropriate to this moment when we observe Easter in the shadow of a deadly pandemic.

We’re talking about a day when churches are ordinarily packed with people come to hear the Good News. Except that this year, they’ll be watching on tablets and smartphones instead. Churches are closed and silent. Or at least, they are supposed to be.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen churches all over the country defy restrictions on social gatherings. Indeed, governors in a number of states — Florida, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Mississippi among them — have carved out religious exemptions to those bans. CNN asked a woman leaving a service in Ohio if she was concerned about having exposed herself to a deadly pathogen. She said she was not because, “I’m covered in Jesus’ blood.”

Translation: “I have faith in the Lord. He will save me.”

One can almost hear a voice from on high saying, “I sent you social distancing. What more do you want?”

Sometimes, the faithful make faith a gauntlet, a test you must pass in order to prove you believe what you say you believe. That can be empowering and uplifting: “Faith,” said Martin Luther King, “is taking the first step when you can’t see the whole staircase.” Yet, as in the parable of the preacher and the flood, that gauntlet can also be foolish.

What’s the point of walking on hot coals to prove your faith if God has given you a safe path around them? What’s the point of sleeping on spikes to prove your faith if God has given you a perfectly good mattress?

And what, pray tell, is the point of exposing yourself to disease to prove your faith if God has given you a way to avoid it?

To gather in a building? Faith is not a building. And Christians are called upon not to go to church but to be the church: to worship, minister and serve.

The verse above is Christianity’s foundation stone: God loved us enough to give us Jesus. But nothing about that great gift is at odds with protecting oneself in a pandemic. After all, God loved us enough to give us science, too.

Contact Pitts at The Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172 or email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com