Dear Pastor,I know you went to seminary so you could preach amazing sermons about grace and redemption. Perhaps you imagined becoming another Billy Graham where every sermon brought hundreds of people to Christ. Maybe you preach by working your way through the lectionary, Sunday by Sunday. You want to be original but profound. You want a message that will be remembered by someone after they walk out the door. Maybe you have your sermon series planned through Easter. You have a theme and a trendy title and a catchy logo and the songs for each Sunday are already planned. And you can’t change the music once it is planned, because let’s face it- everyone knows the cardinal rule of pastoring is not to upset the music minister.
I also know you didn’t learn about medicine in seminary. I sat through all those theology classes, too. You can talk for hours about atonement theories, inerrancy, and the filioque clause. If you were lucky, you may have had the opportunity to take a bioethics class. You might have read something from one of the Neibuhr brothers or Stanley Hauerwas. You probably talked about just war theory, stem cell research, abortion, and ecotheology. I doubt you talked much about vaccines.
You don’t have to be a doctor to know that we have reached a crisis point in our country over vaccines, or rather, over people choosing not to vaccinate their children from almost eradicated and highly contagious diseases. Most recently, an outbreak of measles originating from a single infected person visiting Disney Land has led to over one hundred cases around the country. I am not going to go through all the details of this event, nor am I going to expound on the danger of diseases like measles. There are plenty of conversations about this taking place all over cyberspace. What I would like to share are the reasons why I believe this has become a crisis about which faith leaders and pastors need to begin speaking to their congregations.
Here are three reasons why I believe you, dear pastor, need to preach about vaccines.
1. This is not a matter of scientific debate. It’s about faith.
Scientists don’t agree on many things. In fact, they agree on almost nothing. The medical community is still debating whether or not lowering your cholesterol will prevent a heart attack and if routine mammograms are actually of any benefit in saving lives. We love to form opinions and then change our opinions. The fact that vaccines are not only safe but essential to public health is one of the few things we all agree about. In the medical community, vaccine safety is considered a non-issue. Vaccines have been tested, tested again, and then tested one more time- every study has shown that the risk associated with vaccinating children is negligent compared to the risk of a child driving in a car, taking a bath, or eating a hot dog (things which kill children every day.) Let me say this again, vaccines do not cause autism and the risks associated with vaccines do not outweigh their overwhelming importance.
The truth is, doctors, scientists, and public health officials can talk until we are blue in the face about the importance of vaccinating children, but it will make little difference to many people opposed to vaccines. Why? Because this isn’t about logic, or scientific evidence. It goes much deeper than that. People don’t vaccinate their children because they have lost faith in science and medicine. We are no longer considered an authority, but are just one voice in a cacophony of voices that bombard parents daily. Thanks to the internet, parents live in a world of conflicting messages about everything from how to feed your child to how to discipline them. Anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account can become a self-declared child health expert. All they need is an audience.
Here is where you, dear pastor, are important- faith and trust is what you do best. You wouldn’t be doing the work you do if you didn’t understand how to reach the hearts of those in your faith community. I’m sure you are aware that there are a few, possibly many, families who come to your church each week that don’t vaccinate their children. Think about that for a second. These parents have no faith in their doctors, or in well established medical facts, but they still have faith in God and they still trust you. Their hearts are still open to the wisdom you have to share week after week, day after day. Your voice is still heard and because of that, we need you to speak out.
2. The current vaccine debate speaks to the heart of our faith.
We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, to care for the vulnerable in our midst, to protect the innocent, and to care for the sick- just as Jesus did.
“He taught in their meeting places and preached the good news about God’s kingdom. Jesus also healed every kind of disease and sickness.” -Matthew 9:35
Loving your neighbor as yourself means caring for their needs AS MUCH AS your own. It means seeing the vulnerable in our midst and thinking that it is each of our responsibility to protect them. It means saying, I would never want to be responsible for this child with cancer, this mother with lupus, or this grandfather with leukemia contracting a deadly disease from me, or my child, because we chose not to vaccinate. All of these people are vulnerable because they can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons or because their immune systems are compromised. Infants under the age of 1 year can’t receive the measles or chicken pox vaccines, either. That’s every baby in your church nursery.
The world is describing those who don’t vaccinate as being selfish and there is a growing outcry against the stance that many anti-vaxxers take which says, “I don’t care if my child puts your child at risk. It’s my right.” Beyond that, they are also sending the message that while they don’t believe vaccines are safe, they are willing to let everyone else take the risk of vaccinating their children, while they hide behind the shield of herd immunity. They are saying to the world, “I believe vaccines are dangerous and I won’t give them to my child, but that’s ok because I’m expecting you to give these dangerous vaccines to your child, therefore providing herd immunity to keep my child safe.” There is no other word for this other than selfish and selfishness is not a characteristic that Christians are allowed to have. Don’t we believe in a God who emptied Himself of all His glory, took on human flesh, and willingly chose death so that the world may know eternal life?
Imagine if Jesus had said, “I can’t risk being exposed to all of your diseases. I have important work to do. If you touch me, I might get sick and that would not be God’s will.” How absurd! No, Jesus allowed himself to be touched by them. He carried their diseases, he bore their burdens, and became their healing. So, too, is the church called to stand beside those who are sick and be touched by them. We are called to be a refuge for the sick and hurting. The church can only do this if we are not simultaneously becoming a harbor of deadly diseases. Know this, if your church fosters a culture that opposes vaccinating, you will become an entry point of illness for someone. It is only a matter of time before a baby contracts measles in your church nursery or a mother battling breast cancer comes to pray for healing and inadvertently sits next to a child in the beginning stages of chicken pox whose parents so proudly declared, “My child is going to get chicken pox the old fashioned way!” Chicken pox is not a benign disease and is deadly to those whose immune systems are weakened. And don’t forget that the measles virus is airborne and is so contagious that you don’t even have to be in the same room with someone who has it. You just have to enter that room up two hours later. That translates into a single infected person coming to your 8:30 am worship service being able to infect a baby who comes to be baptized at your 10 am service!
Let me put this another way: You cannot be a refuge for those who need healing if you are allowing the very things that could kill them to spread inside your walls. If we are to bear one another’s burdens, we must bear the burden of vaccinating all of our children who can be vaccinated. There is no other way around it.
3. “Perfect love casts out fear.”
It is easy to parent out of fear these days. There are so many dangers lurking around every corner! Parents are supposed to worry about plastics, GMO’s, non-educational television, and whether or not their car seat has been recalled. Baby blankets aren’t even considered safe anymore!
I believe that parents who don’t vaccinate their children are forming decisions out of love but they are also making decisions out of fear. Their love and their fear have blended together and become paranoia. As a pediatrician, I can answer their medical questions and calm their worries about many things. In many ways I am a professional provider of reassurance. Calming the fears of anxious parents is my job, but they need so much more than what their doctor has to offer. They need to hear their pastor remind them of God’s love. The love that casts out fear. The love that is perfect and immeasurable. The love that empowers us to live as people of the resurrection. The love that speaks peace. When we stand as witnesses of the Gospel, we must assume a posture of confident love, not cower in fear.
Everlasting life is life lived in the fullness of God’s grace. Everlasting life is not lived in fear. We do not clasp our hands around any gift, especially our children, and say- ‘They are mine and only I will choose what is best for them!” Instead, we hold them out before God with open hands and pray that God will bathe them in grace. We trust each day that when they walk out the door, get on the school bus, or jump into a swimming pool they are held in the hands of the unseen Spirit. We tuck them in at night and pray for angels to stand watch while they sleep. Like Hannah, we give our children over to God day after day, time and time again.
So, dear pastor, while you are planning your sermon this week, please think about the parents who are sitting in your pews. Think about the ones who are afraid to vaccinate. Think about the ones who are terrified their child, unable to be vaccinated, will not be safe when they leave them in the nursery. Think about the doctors and nurses who are trying to mask their own fears of an impending measles outbreak. We are scared, too. Really and truly scared. We are all afraid and we need you to be brave. Be brave and speak out in truth and in love. Please don’t think that because you went to seminary and not medical school that you have nothing to offer. You may be the very one who can save us all.