Today was to be a day of great rejoicing. On August 14 I dropped my son and daughter at their college in Louisville, Kentucky, knowing that with all the border restrictions and quarantine requirements it was unlikely I would see them again before the close of the semester. We booked their return flights for today, Friday, November 13. This was to be the day of our reunion. And, to add joy upon joy, my son’s new fiancée was going to join them! Though their return would require a two-week quarantine for the whole group of us—six people in our wee little house—we were looking forward to it. We had activities planned. We had talked about enjoying some board games, about holding a Mario Kart tournament, and even about reading a Shakespeare play together. It would be quarantine with purpose, a unique opportunity to enjoy time as a family that was about to grow from 5 members to 6.
We are in quarantine now, but under very different circumstances. Our family has shrunk from 5 to 4. My daughter returned home last weekend. The woman who was to be my sweet new daughter-in-law lost her ability to enter the country when she lost her fiancé. My son returned to Canada yesterday, one day ahead of the schedule we had set, but instead of coming to our family home he was transported to a funeral home. And there he will wait until November 21 when we are released from quarantine and can finally lay his body to rest.
There are times when quarantine is necessary. We need only look as far as the Old Testament law to see that at times the sick need to be separated from the healthy. To love your neighbor as yourself is sometimes to keep your neighbor from yourself. We can go farther and understand why at times it is necessary that those who have merely been exposed to an illness or who have travelled through a hotspot ought to be kept in isolation for the duration of the virus’s incubation period. We sometimes need to rely on such measures to protect society.
Through this outbreak of COVID-19 I’ve often expressed how thankful I am that I do not need to make decisions on behalf of millions or tens of millions of people. If it has been tricky to lead my little family and co-lead my medium-sized church, I can only imagine the difficulties inherent in leading a large province, state, or nation. Through it all I have done my level best to follow in the ways I’d wish to be followed—to submit to the governing authorities, to honor their laws and regulations, to assume their motives are noble rather than selfish, to do my duty before God and man. Yet I have often wondered if those leaders are governing with too little precision, in ways that are blunt rather than exact. And I have often wondered if the quarantine law is one of these instruments that is simply too blunt.
Having returned home from the United States on the weekend, following my son’s memorial service at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I and my family are now serving out a mandatory 14-day quarantine. As far as we know, we are healthy and well. We have no symptoms of any illness. Though we traveled from a place where COVID is active, we have returned to a place where it is equally or more active—a downright hotspot, even. Yet we must isolate ourselves completely for two whole weeks. To enter the country we had to agree to a number of stipulations: we must not leave our property; we must not have visitors; we must not interact with others, even just to talk from a safe distance. All this enforceable under penalty of law.
We have all the provisions we need—we returned home to a fridge, freezer, and pantry literally stuffed with food. We have access to all the provisions we don’t need but may want—UberEats, Skip the Dishes, grocery delivery, and Amazon Prime ply this neighborhood all day every day. But what we don’t have and so badly need right now is access to people. No one can come and pray with us, no one can come and read Scripture to us, no one can come and sing with us, no one can come and just be with us. No one can hug us, cry with us, and comfort us. And this is a sorrow added to our sorrow.
It is unnatural to be alone in grief. “Weep with those who weep” can be partially fulfilled through iMessage, but only actually fulfilled in person, when bodies are clasped together, when tears spill from one person’s eyes to another person’s shoulder (Romans 12:15). The church in Corinth was to comfort those in affliction by their presence, not their absence (2 Corinthians 1:4). When Paul was downcast and longing to be comforted, it was not Titus’s Zoom call that shored him up, but Titus’s arrival (2 Corinthians 7:6). Yes, of course God comforts us in our times of distress, but God comforts us by means, and often the most prominent of those means is the presence of his people. We are, after all, a body, Christ’s body, and just as “if one member is honored, all rejoice together,” so “if one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Together, not apart. Yet just when my family most needs that togetherness, we’ve been forced into apartness. Just when my family most needs the body, we have been detached from it.
Added to the separation from people is the restriction against even setting foot off our postage-stamp property. We cannot stretch our legs with a walk around the neighborhood, we cannot distract ourselves with the beauty of nature, we cannot so much as go for a drive to see something beyond the four walls of this house. And then the quarantine period stretches out the time before we can hold the funeral and inter the body. We cannot do any of these things until the fifteenth day after arriving home, which leaves too much time before the sense of closure we hope these events will bring.
Aileen and I agreed from the moment we learned we would be walking this difficult road that by faith we would let our son go, that by faith we would accept that God had taken him. The God with the power to give him to us had the right to take him from us. We would not grumble, we would not shake our fists at the sky, we would not charge God with wrong for taking our son or for any of the difficulties that might follow. But we would grieve, we would lament, we would express the troubles of our souls. And this period of isolation has been a hardship on top of our hardship, a sorrow on top of our sorrow. We know God is more than equal to it, of course. He has been so kind to us and so present with us. He has expressed his love to us and tenderly cared for us. But still, we long for arms to hold us, shoulders to steady us, lips to pray for us, voices to speak truth to us, brothers and sisters to simply be with us.
It is far above my pay grade, and far above any position of leadership I’d ever desire for myself, to determine whether it’s wisdom or folly that Canada has enacted such strict quarantine laws for those who return to this country. There are times in which quarantine is warranted, and times in which it is not. There are times when quarantine is an act of kindness and times when it is an act of cruelty. We don’t know which is true right now. What we do know is that we we are learning through our sorrow just how wondrous it is to be part of something so beautiful, so good, so necessary, as the body of Christ. We are learning how devastating it is to be detached from it in our moment of need.