The account used to describe the event comes from Giovanni Boccaccio's classic book of tales called The Decameron. Boccaccio describes how it soon became evident that merely touching an infected victim, or even being in the same room with them, would likely kill anyone trying to help. This prompted a number of uninfected people to take a somewhat debatable course of action:
"Some thought that moderate living and the avoidance of all superfluity would preserve them from the epidemic. They formed small communities, living entirely separate from everybody else. They shut themselves up in houses where there were no sick, eating the finest food and drinking the best wine very temperately, avoiding all excess, allowing no news or discussion of death or sickness, and passing the time in music and suchlike pleasures."That is, in fact, what The Decameron is, the fictional record of a group of uninfected people who hid out together in safety during the plague and told humorous and sometimes bawdy tales to each other over a 10-day period to keep themselves amused.
Why does this passage describing events more than 600 years ago speak to me now? Because I recognize myself in that group of people who basically gave up, who wanted nothing more than to hide themselves away from the horrors of the world and live the good life amidst the suffering and blackness.
Today, we're confronted not with a plague of physical sickness, but with one caused by moral decay. How should a Christian respond, and how should he not?
After giving the issue a lot of thought, I've come to the conclusion that there are two ways for a Christian to respond inappropriately to the evil in our world. The first, of course, is to embrace the oft-used philosophy, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Do it out in the open or behind closed doors, whatever you're comfortable with, but accept the supreme value of "tolerance." By all means, subscribe to the Playboy Channel, order the adult DVDs, drop by the strip club, visit the Internet porn site, meet the mistress, gamble away the paycheck, have just one more drink.
I have to confess that my record in past years of resisting these sorts of temptations is not pristine. But now, as a middle-aged family man, I find that it's another type of temptation I fight most against.
It starts with a simple wish for peace and order. I patiently endure the neighbors next door, the ones who play loud music (of a kind I don't like) for everyone to hear, whose foul-mouthed kids stay out unsupervised until all hours of the night, who leave trash in the street and beer bottles on my lawn, who seem to always be sleeping soundly on Sunday mornings, until one day I let myself think, "Lord, I wish they would move."
Then I realize that the neighbor across the street is not too hot, either, and probably just as pagan, and I think, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if good Christian families moved into both of those houses? What friendships and fellowship we could have."
I hear the constant drone of stories on TV about children being snatched from their homes by molesting monsters, or being beaten to death by hardened child playmates, or about increasing drug use or rampant cheating or infidelity or government-sponsored immorality, and I take the fantasy a bit further. I think, "Wouldn't it be great if there was a subdivision that I and my other good Christian friends could create for ourselves, a subdivision full of just Christians, where all the kids would be polite and reverent, and all of the adults would be respectful of each other? Think of how well everyone would get along! What neighborhood barbeques and Bible studies we could have!"
But as news of the evil world piles up, and it becomes clear that evil can penetrate any normal city or suburb at will, my fantasy gets more fantastic and frantic. What about our own gated little community out of reach somewhere, maybe up on a breathtaking mountaintop in Colorado? No, wait -- what about our own island? Yes, that's it. We'd have our own Christian island, with a Christian government, Christian schools, Christian businesses, Christian garbage pickup and Christian ice cream vans with loudspeakers blaring "Jesus Loves the Little Children" instead of "Turkey in the Straw." We'd be totally safe and secure and self-sufficient and happy, and think of the awesome Bible studies we would have!
As a 44-year-old man with a wife and two children I want to protect, this is the temptation I most find myself fighting when confronted with the reality of a lost world -- not the sinful urge to embrace its evils, but the equally sinful urge to flee it altogether. I'm seduced by the notion of giving into the temptation to just be left alone, to be able to sleep a peaceful sleep, wake up and read the Bible or whatever strikes my fancy, to listen to beautiful music, play with my wonderful kids, spend time with my sweet wife, congregate with like-minded friends, and never be bothered with inconvenient people who don't agree with or even respect or understand my beliefs, whose kids are growing up seemingly without any moral code or positive role models, whose messy lives I would really have to get right smack dab in the middle of to have a hope of changing for the good.
You might say, well, what's wrong with that? Doesn't God love us and want us to be happy? Is it so wrong to want nice things and to be around good people?
Well, no...but if we call ourselves Christians and claim to have read the Bible, we know the full answer. When it comes right down to it, we are called not to strive for comfort, not to flee the world, but are called to be vessels through which God can transform mankind.
We know how Jesus acted when he was on the earth, and yes, He spent many days in quiet, peaceful places with his disciples, teaching and fellowshipping. But after a time, He always walked straight into the gathering places of tax cheats and prostitutes and lepers and rebels, into the worst stinking hell holes Israel had to offer. And His purpose was never to indulge in the sins offered there, but to be as light unto darkness, and to rescue lost sheep.
I know that now is the place in this essay where I should place the personal turnaround "clincher" paragraph. You know, the one that says that even though I once avoided the lost world, I have fully reformed and now realize the extent of my responsibility to spread the gospel. I would tell of how I have begun reaching out to my neighbors, to strangers, to the homeless, the sick and the imprisoned, all in Christ's name. But I can't be honest and write that paragraph, folks. I admit with shame I'm not there yet.
Realizing what you need to do is only the first step -- doing it is the next. And I must pray for the strength to take that next step, to stop hiding in the warmth of my faith and begin using it like the sharp, piercing tool it was designed to be. I must not be seduced by those visions of the island paradise that constantly float into my mind, and instead realize that, while God wants only the best for me, I have a responsibility to make the best of my time on earth.
And if that means unlocking the doors and stepping out into the heart of the Black Death, then so be it.
Quote of the day:
"Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."
--Matt. 5:14-16 (KJV)