A Pastoral Letter to the Pandemic’s Older Sons (and Daughters)

by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund on August 12, 2021

I had a conversation with a friend of mine this week. He’s got young kids who are about to start school, and like a lot of parents right now, he’s worried about how safe they’ll be. Will students and teachers wear masks? Will students or teachers who have potentially been exposed to COVID be required to self-isolate or get a COVID test before returning to in-person classes?

 

Like a lot of us, this friend of mine got vaccinated when he became eligible and has been careful to adjust his life and that of his household so as to contribute as much as possible to our collective safety and flourishing. Long-term work adjustments, long-term changes to his level of social interaction, masks—the whole nine yards we’re all so weary of by now.

 

As I listened to him talk about what his family’s experience is like, particularly as we approach the school year, I was keenly aware of how angry he was. I realized that deep down, I’m angry, too. I’m angry that we’re seeing an upsurge in cases that is as sharp as our present one is.

 

Here are some details for Hays County:

 

  • As I’m writing this, our 7-day average for new COVID cases is 133. The last time it was that high was eight months ago on January 25, 2021, when vaccination rates were low and we were still weathering the holiday upsurge. [1]
  • Our positivity rate is 21%.[2]
  • Our ICU beds are 97% full.[3]
  • 86% of COVID hospitalizations in Hays County are unvaccinated persons, while 14% are vaccinated.[4]
None of these statistics was inevitable.  We are still learning about the Delta variant and the extent to which vaccinated persons transmit coronavirus.  It seems to me likely that there was never a realistic scenario in which the pandemic would simply be over and done by now.[5] (Not that my opinion in this regard matters much.)  Still, it seems true to say that our current upsurge should not be this steep or this taxing on medical infrastructure.  Not after eighteen months of this.  Yet here we are.
 

As I listened to my friend’s anger, and began to identify my own, the story of the Prodigal Son came to mind. It’s a familiar parable (Luke 15:11-32). A man has two sons: One asks for his inheritance early and then runs off to squander it and generally do whatever the hell he wants, while the other remains at home, continuing to work in the fields. The younger son finally comes to his senses, repents, and returns home where he is welcomed abundantly by his father. The older son, who is still in the fields working when the younger returns (11:25), is resentful and refuses to participate in the welcome back party. The parable ends with the father’s correcting the older son: “Rejoice…this brother of yours…was lost and has been found” (11:32).

 

The anger so many of us feel right now is similar to the older son’s anger in the parable. Those of us who stayed isolated during the worst of the pandemic, who sought out vaccines when we became eligible, who have been doing our best to follow various protocols and adjust them every few months as needed—we feel like the older son who stayed home and remained committed to the necessary work of keeping the household running.

 

What I noticed about the parable this week was that, when the younger son skips town, the older son’s work necessarily doubles. Think about it: Both sons are of a working age, so the household’s established rhythm is one in which both sons are in the fields keeping the farm going. One less son at home means the other has to work overtime.

 

This current COVID upsurge feels like that. For those of us who have sought out vaccines and mostly played by the rules, it feels like we’re having to work overtime. Even after all the hard work we’ve already done, we’re still not finished because it feels like some folks are unwilling to do their fair share. It feels like there’s this big prodigal swath of the population who’d just rather do whatever the hell they want than attend to the needs of the whole household.

 

That’s what it feels like.

 

It would be one thing if folks who choose not to get vaccinated and not to abide by certain other precautions were making other adjustments to compensate. Staying home, say, or choosing to be outside or only in very sparsely populated areas. But this doesn’t seem to be the case.

 

It would also be a bit different if vaccines were available for everyone. Then, those who wanted vaccines for their families could pursue them, while others could abstain without too dramatically prolonging risk to others. But this also isn’t the case: Kids of elementary school age and younger still aren’t eligible. Others may be unable to receive vaccines due to medical complications or other external factors.

 

Hopefully, this will change soon, and vaccines will be available to all ages. But until it does, parents (and teachers and medical staff and a host of others) are left like the older son standing in the field. They are working extra-long hours to accomplish a task which just isn’t designed for one son to do alone. The household needs both brothers working in order to flourish.

 

If you feel like the older son in the parable, your anger is justified.

 

You might be thinking, “Wait, doesn’t the parable end with the father’s actually correcting the older son for being angry and skipping the welcome back party?”

 

Yes. But the parable also ends with the younger son’s coming home and doing his job for the sake of their common household. It is one thing to nurse resentment toward someone who made a bad decision but has since changed their ways. It is another to be angry at someone who continues to make bad decisions which prolong your family’s distress.

 

If you are one of the pandemic’s older sons, God willing, your anger will be temporary and will soon turn to something else. Forgiveness, reconciliation, maybe even joy at our shared household’s returning to its usual flourishing. Righteous anger is okay; it’s a kind of allergic reaction to that which harms God’s creatures. Jesus himself felt it. We will likely continue to feel it to some extent until this parable actually ends with both brothers’ working in the fields of our common good. It was a bad decision the prodigal son made, after all, one that hurt the whole family. The older son was right to continue prioritizing the household’s common good over his own individual impulses. The older son errs only in nursing his anger after the younger son returns home to do what he should’ve been doing the whole time.

 

So: Continue to care for the fields that are yours to care for, as best you can, and know that all that is the Father’s is yours, too (11:31). Pray for your anger to leave you; pray for it to turn into active care for others; pray for the desire to forgive; pray for a change of heart in your neighbor—heck, pray that you find a fun and interesting new hobby. Whether we like it or not, the pandemic continues to be a primary historical setting in which our Christian discipleship must play out. This field is still ours to work. By God’s power given to us in prayer, we can do so for as long as is needed.

 

My own prayer is that, by God’s mercy, we older sons of the pandemic may do so without the added burden of bitterness. There are other and better things to which we might offer such passion, things which might also keep alive our fraternal love for those we hope to see, safely and soon, on home’s horizon.

 

God’s Peace,
Daniel+


[3] See note 2 above.
[4] As of this writing, 37 of the 43 COVID hospitalizations in Hays County are unvaccinated persons; the remaining 6 are vaccinated. This is from Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra’s social media post of a Hays County News release: https://www.facebook.com/judgebecerra/posts/862029238072204

[5] Having said that, it’s also worth asking whether the Delta variant itself was inevitable. The longer a virus is around, the longer it has to adapt. This has been a global issue from the beginning.

 
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