Despite all the chaos, fear and confusion of these past several weeks, it’s incredible to me the absolute inundation of stories about everyday people who are stepping up, going out of their way, and caring for those around them in truly remarkable ways. This, I think, is the silver lining in this current crisis. I’m sure you each have a handful of stories you have witnessed, contributed to, and benefitted from personally. What strikes me now is this amazing opportunity we have to not only be the hands and feet, the body of Christ; but to encourage the ones who are putting the image of God on display… and don’t even realize that’s why they’re loving and serving people the way that they are.
A popular video was being shared last week—John Lennon’s famous ballad “Imagine”, sung by a number of celebrities. The video (and the song itself) has been ridiculed and renounced for many reasons. Particularly relevant for believers in Jesus are the lines calling for us to “imagine there’s no heaven… no hell… no religion, too.” Regardless of the execution of the video, the way it was sung, the privilege of those singing, I’d like to highlight the intent of the video. The sentiment is a good one. And theologically, not that far off. Bear with me. I don’t expect John Lennon, or Gal Gadot for that matter, to accurately articulate everything I believe. But when I hear this song, I think of the kingdom of God. The way things ought to be. The way things will be when God makes all things new.
Especially in times of crisis, we see a yearning for the way things ought to be. We see people stepping up to meet needs in ways we may have been overlooking before. We see it in the way neighbors are caring for each other. People are donating time and money to various organizations who are making sure no one goes without. On Facebook, I can hardly scroll through my timeline without seeing a friend call out the hoarding and stockpiling of groceries and medical supplies. It’s become common to recognize the hard work and courage of those on the front lines of this crisis, who are daily in harm’s way. Restaurants are preparing free meals for families with children.
There’s an ache for the time when this will all be behind us and life can finally get back to normal. And yet, if life actually “got back to normal”, I fear we would be wasting opportunities. If any of these current activities and perspectives were to stop once coronavirus had run its course, we would be denying ourselves a beautiful glimpse into what the kingdom of God looks like. Yes, what we’re seeing and doing right now—serving and loving others in the most practical of ways—is what we are called to do as good humans. Good neighbors. We should be doing these things as good citizens… let alone as citizens of the kingdom. But it is the additional understanding of why we do this as followers of Jesus that points us to the good news. We do this—all of us—because we are made in God’s image. We are all made to reflect his goodness, love, mercy, and desire to help those in need. We are all made to help bring about his plan to restore the world to himself. One day, there will be no need for greed or hunger. Nothing to kill or die for. Heaven comes to earth, death will be destroyed, and even religion will lose its meaning as we know it. The endgame of the church is not universal religion: it’s the forever, creation-wide reality of renewal and reunion with God. That’s the kingdom, the new earth as described in the book of Revelation.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “God has set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” I think what we’re seeing right now from people who do not claim to follow Jesus, who genuinely want to love their neighbors or are crying out in fear and anxiety of the unknown, is a demonstration of that ache for eternity. One philosopher wrote, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him… though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only… by God himself.”
What are the ways those around you are seeking to fill that ache of eternity? That hole only God can fill? Some are taking John Lennon’s lead in an attempt to rally others to this beautifully imagined world. Some are dulling the ache with food or drink or exercise or sleep or overworking or binge watching tv. Some are asking questions about that eternity. How will you contextualize the good news that Jesus offers into these situations? How will you translate the hope that you have to those who fear, grieve, panic as if they have no hope? How will you encourage those who are stepping up and loving those around them—perhaps like Paul giving context to the worship of the Athenians in Acts 17 (look it up!)—to speak into the reason they do the good things they do, because they are made in God’s image.
On a personal note, I identify with those who are struggling to adapt. I am right there with those who sometimes (often) fear, and grieve, and panic, as if I have no hope. I need this message as much as the rest of the world does. In this strange time of social distancing, isolation can really just be a euphemism for loneliness. I know many of you are affected by illness, loss of income, depression, anxiety, and may be feeling trapped in your situation. This truth is for you, too: there is hope. Jesus is King, and invites us to participate in bringing about his kingdom. Imagine.
“In the midst of isolation… we experience the loss of so many things. Let us once again listen to the proclamation that saves us: he is risen and is living by our side.”
—Pope Frances, in a message regarding COVID-19
As I sit here this morning, putting the final touches on this blog post, it’s beginning to settle in just how strange these days are becoming for our world.
I wanted to share with you some thoughts on this Sunday morning. They aren’t organized in any particular order. Some are related to others, though some are not. Let’s dig in.
1. The church is built for this.
All churches are greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of us are concerned about how this will impact the church moving forward. Looking back to its origins, the body of Christ wasn't built on the basis of some organizational structure. And I don’t mean to say structure was absent from the church, because it wasn’t. (That’s actually a series we’ll be discussing later this year.)
The church was a movement of the disciples of Jesus. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus commissioned his disciples to be sent to the world, just as he himself was sent to the world (Jn. 17:18). In the book of Acts, the church was growing daily through believers meeting in their homes, breaking bread, learning from the apostles’ teachings, praying, serving others, taking care of those who were in need, and God gave them favor in the eyes of the communities around them (Acts 2:42-47). From that point forward, the church has grown through dispersion, suffering, persecution… and it can continue to grow through pandemics.
The church is built to withstand what we are experiencing today because God’s presence is in the midst of his people, wherever they may be. Our identity is summed up in the one who could not be defeated, even by death itself.
2. How this is going to change the way we view church?
A conversation I’ve been having with several folks is how this pandemic is going to alter the way we see the church. Make no mistake about it, we are getting ready to learn what we truly believe about the church and the gospel.
An honest question: does it feel like we are no longer a church because of our gathering restrictions? “The church isn’t a building; it's the people”, was the quote I often heard growing up in church. Well… we now get to see if we truly believe that. If we are not careful, our systems of how we do church can take over our identity as the church. Jesus spoke most harshly to the religious elite because of this very mistake. The ways we worship can become the object of our worship.
One question that I have been pondering: what are we going to say about the COVID-19 pandemic five years from today? How did it impact the church? How did the church move forward? It is going to be incredibly interesting to see the impact and trajectory of the church for the years to come.
3. The pandemic is changing the way I see how our actions impact others.
I was at the grocery store on Friday. I’ve seen panic with hurricanes. I’ve seen people clear shelves and stock pile food and toiletries before a snowstorm. But I’ve never seen anything quite like this. All rice and pastas were sold out. TP and paper towels were long gone. The freezers were emptied by the sections. UNREAL.
I fortunately was able to get one last small pack of diapers for our youngest two who still need them at night. At the register, I was conversing with the employee that was scanning our items, and he commented: “Man, I’m so glad you were able to get these diapers. I have a 3 month old at home. I literally work here, and I can’t find baby wipes. People will wait for the shelves to be stocked and they clear them out before anyone else can get them.”
Many people are driven by fear right now, and their actions aren’t considering the situation of their neighbors. That conversation has made me reflect on how our actions—both positive and negative—affect those around us. For me, this raises the bar for why the church must be so intentional to love people well. As Jesus told his disciples, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).
4. I’m beginning to pray that the church would spread the good news of Jesus as easily as this virus is being spread.
Not much more needs to be said about this one. Just imagine disciples of Jesus being so infectious to those around them through their servant-like posture, their hospitality, and their devotion to making the name of Jesus great in all that they do. Wow!
So whether you are with friends or family or are by yourself this morning, I invite you to join us all in reflecting on these questions:
I’d love to hear your response to the above questions, or any creative or innovative ways of being the church during this season of social distancing and quarantine! Text, email, post on our facebook group what you’ve been doing or planning to do. Let’s be encouraged to mobilize and act by hearing how others are being diligent in loving and serving those around them!
For starters, Sarah Landis organized an effort to gather independent activities like puzzles, coloring books, crossword puzzles, markers, and candy for different senior centers and care facilities—raising over $550 and counting! As far as I’m aware, this effort is ongoing! You can contribute by donating at this link: https://thewellde.churchcenter.com/giving/to/covid-19-individual-activity-resources
Here are some things we can pray for together:
I’ll leave you with these lyrics at the end of one of my favorite songs, “In Christ Alone”:
"No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me
From life's first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand
Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.”