In early 2003 a new disease slipped into densely populated Hong Kong with a mainland Chinese tourist. Only when the tourist died in a local hospital did we learn that the disease was deadly. By mid-March the number of local residents hospitalized with it was growing. Front-line medical staff and other hospital patients began catching it.
Doctors didn't know what it was, how to treat it or even how it was transmitted. They only knew that it could kill.
At the end of March the government closed all schools. Grocery-store shelves were stripped bare as terrified people stock-piled food and other essentials. Many fled Hong Kong.
For those of us who stayed, fear was in the air we breathed and on everything we touched. We donned surgical masks when shopping or riding public transport and we wiped all surfaces with disinfectant. People used keys, rather than fingers, to push elevator buttons. Many employers were afraid to give live-in servants their weekly holiday. What if the maid caught the disease while out and brought it back to the family?
Since we work with a congregation of live-in servants imported from the Philippines, this fear halved our church attendance. Those members who were able and brave enough to come out arrived wearing surgical masks. When we had a statutory-holiday church activity, we held it at the deserted end of a park.
Throughout April the number of people infected and the number of deaths climbed as the medical services battled this mystery disease. Everyone battled the fear of catching it. The weeks passed. Gradually the numbers of new cases and of deaths decreased. Schools cautiously reopened. By the latter part of June, new cases and deaths had fallen to zero. At 3 p.m. on June 23 the World Health Organization took Hong Kong off its list of SARS-affected areas.
Those three months was a good reminder of how little control we have over our world. Despite living in an age of scientific knowledge that would astound our ancestors, diseases still kill. Natural disasters still destroy. Wars still devastate countries.
We have no more control over our smaller world. Road accidents rob us of loved ones. The lump turns out to be cancer. Fire destroys our house. An economic disaster wipes out our life's savings.
Fortunately God doesn't have our problem. Although mankind's sin broke his perfect world, he's still in control. This glorious fact resounds from Genesis through Revelation. Because he's in control, he can use the trials to train us for our good – if we let him. Heb 12:7-11
When we face life's hardships, how will we respond? Will we allow God to use them to draw us closer to him? Or will we let the opportunities be wasted?
During SARS I asked our church members what this experience was teaching them about God. One member gave this answer.
“I know in times like this I have God who always takes care of me. During this epidemic I've learned how to pray on the subway, on the bus, at the market, EVERYWHERE.”
She didn't waste her opportunity. May we never waste ours.
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