It’s early morning, the first week of the ‘Stay at Home’ Order in the State of Illinois, the first week of virtual services, virtual homegroups, and I’m wondering to myself what will become of my church and the thousands of other churches around the country, different sizes, different circumstances, different finances.
I take a walk through the center of my town to pray. The stores and restaurants all closed, no cars on the streets, no children in the parks, no people getting on the trains, and I start wondering, will this place ever come back? I pray for the healing of my city.
I find myself worrying about the frontline workers in the hospitals, about the vulnerable in my church and on my block. I worry about my family, our future and myself. This worry starts to consume me, even debilitate me. I feel nausea in my stomach. What will become of my church? my job? My family, my life? It feels apocalyptic in the worst of ways.
It’s really been a stunning few weeks.
The Isaiah Apocalypse
So somewhere, half way along my walk, seeking the presence of God in my frailty, I begin to dwell in the texts of Isaiah 24-27, what some people call “the Isaiah Apocalypse.” And I hear those words “O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.” (25:1 NRSV).
I try to center my self in God. I come to this slowly. I have to pass through a time of releasing the panic, allowing myself to give up any control, and somehow allow myself to be centered in the gravitas of God, this Isaiah 25 reality of God. I look to the sky, dwell in the presence of the most High God who comes to me in Jesus by the Spirit. God is working. He will work in and through this. He will not extract us from this upheaval, this suffering, but he will strengthen us for the journey through it and to the other side. He will make again “a rich feast for all peoples” (25:6). Can I be led to know God this way in His presence?
Leading into His presence is what pastors do. But we have to go there first. It could take some time. This time, finding this place took me three days. But I cannot lead people there, I cannot lead from there, if I am not there myself. But when we get there, we will walk with our churches, our neighborhoods and the least of these among us through this tumultuous time. There will be a glorious feast on the other side.
Watching cable news is so disturbing. In the midst of all the blaming of the other side, the self-preservation, the grandstanding of our leaders in Washington, I need to be present to God. I intentionally turn off the cable news. I need to steady myself in God’s presence. Those who are “of steadfast mind,” Isaiah says, God will keep in peace – in peace because they trust Him (26:3). This is the kind of leadership we need midst the world of Cable News.
During these days I often take a few minutes to listen to Pepper Choplin’s ‘We Are Not Alone” (I love this Mennonite choir’s rendition). Those words connect me to the reality of God with us. “We are not alone, we are not alone for God is with us… He will make us strong, we will press on, for God is with us.” Listening to these words gives me this marvelous sense of God’s presence in and among His people in this neighborhood. That God is moving and working. I’m just joining in. More than I ever I need to do things like this to steady myself in His presence.
This is what God’s people do. This defines who we are in Christ. This is how we pastors can lead through a time like this.
Scurrying to Put Services Online
All over North America pastors have been scurrying to put worship, Sunday gatherings and sermons on various online platforms. And this has been surprisingly well received and helpful. Our church was immensely blessed this past Sunday with a virtual worship gathering. So I’m all in for developing media to communicate and coordinate worship and the hearing of the gospel. Nonetheless, is this all that the church can do in response to the coronavirus?
We know there are many people who are isolated, vulnerable and scared, prone to being lonely and depressed. Online services are good but not enough for these people. Indeed, they are not enough for me. So I encourage myself and all pastors during this time, no matter how big or small your congregation, to put the bulk of your time into multiplying as many micro social interactive spaces as is safely possible.
For instance, let’s organize small house gatherings that meet virtually via zoom or another platform. Where people can share, connect, talk about the needs, fears and pains of the neighborhood. Where we can be made aware of the vulnerable among us, not just our church, but in our neighborhoods. Where we can pray together for ourselves and our neighborhood. Let us pastors, elders, and house group leaders make sure we go see people face to face safely, knock on their door, stand at least 6 ft away, connect, ask how they are, pray the gospel of Jesus over them, encourage them with the gospel, that Jesus is Lord, He is working in and through this, God is doing something new!! Then let’s unleash all the people of God to do the same. Let’s make a couple of phone calls a day connecting with people, especially the vulnerable among us, in the same way. Think small, start small. Even if only you can do it, a little at a time, I contend you have no idea where God will take this. Surely some of us will need to develop new people skills. But oh the space that shall be opened up for God to work among us.
God’s Working for A New Future
This virus comes on the heels of some of the worst failures of church in our lifetimes in North America. And now COVID-19 is forcing us to stay at home, be local, tend to God’s working among people in their lives. But if we ground ourselves in God who is present and working among us, if we lead one another via His great presence in faith and trust, if we do the little things of cultivating Kingdom in small interactive spaces, I believe God is birthing something new. Once the coronavirus dissipates and society returns to its daily routines we will have a deeper, thicker church. It may not look the same as before. It may be less impressive in the eyes of the flesh. But this renewed church will be rich in the life of the Kingdom. In ways we never could have imagined prior to COVID-19, this renewed church will witness to the rule and reign of Jesus Christ, the hope of the world. I pray it be so, Amen!