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Following Jesus during the time of COVID is discombobulating.
A pastor said to me, “I don’t understand why I’m exhausted all the time. I feel unglued.” A worship leader wondered how many people will conclude that having Sunday mornings free is too enjoyable to give up. A church planter sought advice concerning how to respond to members who were convinced that it is our Christian duty to reject all government-imposed restrictions on assembling. Christian counseling centers are packed full with folks seeking support for anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
It’s a very strange time. How do we read the Bible during COVID, and what spiritual disciplines might we be called to practice? Remember that spiritual disciplines bear two kinds of fruit: they invite the presence of Christ to dwell within us more fully and they serve to put to death the sin that lingers and the idols we cling to. With that in mind, I suggest these five biblical practices.
1. Pray the prayer of Jehoshaphat (II Chron. 20:6-12). Advisors inform King Jehoshaphat that a vast army is coming to attack, so he gathers all the people (including babies!) in the temple court and leads a public prayer that ends by declaring, “We have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are fixed on you.”
Imagine being there, listening to your king pray this prayer, a public confession of helplessness and ignorance embedded in a deep trust in the Lord. In the time of COVID, might the Lord call us to put to death premature “certainties” and to humbly acknowledge that, when this enemy first hit, there was very little about it that we understood? Our social media-driven age encourages us to form instant opinions on everything, because we are all “Google experts” now. There are seasons of life when we are simply called to honesty, humility, and vulnerability, and Jehoshaphat shows us how.
2. Live open to the strange obedience of Gideon (Judges 6-7). When we first meet Gideon, he is threshing wheat in his winepress, hiding from the Midianites who are terrorizing the Israelites. He is considered the weakest member of his clan. The Lord’s angel comes and addresses him as “Mighty Warrior!” After lengthy (and even comedic) dealings with Gideon’s anxiety, the Lord finally prepares Gideon for leadership, and gives him an “army” of 300 men who are armed only with trumpets and torches to take on a foe of multiple thousands.
None of us alive today have experienced an enemy like COVID. We are tempted to frantically draw upon every survival mechanism known to us or to hide away in our own winepresses. Gideon’s encounter with the Lord reminds us that we walk with the creator of a billion galaxies, and he equips us to engage this enemy in ways we would never have imagined. Anxiety stifles our imaginations, so the Lord patiently takes time to minister to Gideon’s anxiety. (If you don’t know the story, read these two chapters. They’re astounding!) Then he equips him in an utterly bizarre manner. I see the same pattern happening in churches around the world today. Are you open to the unimaginable?
3. Wear the clothing of Jesus; celebrate one baptism (Gal. 3: 26-29). The first-century church lived in a Roman world that contained three great societal separations: male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free. Forming one body of Christ that transcended these three great separations was a humanly impossible challenge, and the New Testament tirelessly calls the church to be one. “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (vv. 27-28)
We also experience multiple great separations: American and Canadian, Democrat and Republican, caucasian and people of color, conservative and liberal, and the stresses of COVID have exacerbated these separations. The cacophony of division brings to mind the falling mountains and roaring seas of Psalm 46, and, like the Psalmist, we hear the Lord who breaks the bow and shatters the spear cry out, “Be still! And know that I am God!” (vs.10). In that silence, we remember that our identity is in Christ; secondary markers of our identities may never be permitted to override our baptism in Christ. The Catechism question, “What is my only comfort in life and in death?” rests us in our primary identity: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
4. Identify and pray through anxiety (Phil. 4:1-9). Before COVID hit, our society was experiencing epidemic levels of anxiety (“eco-anxiety” was added to dictionaries in 2019); now COVID itself has contributed to an anxiety pandemic. Anxiety that is unnamed and unchecked leaves us reactive, conflictual, angry, and blinds our vision so that we only see those things that justify our anxiety. Anxiety that is not named is given permission to run rampant like a forest fire.
The Apostle Paul understands this, addressing it in one of his most beloved passages: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (vv. 4-7).
Our congregations are able to provide the gift of safe places to identify our anxieties. Our preachers have the humanly impossible task of dealing with their own anxieties while ministering to the struggles in the congregation. Perhaps that is why Paul (who is in prison) declares a few verses later, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (v. 13).
5. Remember the rock (Matt. 16:13-20). In Matthew 16, Jesus and his disciples come to Caesarea Philippi, a place where the headwaters of the Jordan River trickle over little waterfalls below an enormous rock cliff with pagan idols carved into its face. At this place of intense spiritual warfare, Peter (responding to a question from Jesus) declares, “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God” (v. 16). Jesus replies by blessing Peter and promising, “You are the rock, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (vs. 18).
Peter was an impetuous, unschooled fisherman. The rock cliff face behind him symbolized the imperial power of Rome. That empire now exists only in history books and archeological sites; the church of Jesus Christ is present in every single nation on earth, and through the past 20 centuries it has, by grace, come safely home through innumerable “dangers, toils and snares.” Like Peter, we are all “like living stones, being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Peter 2: 5).
Remember who we are: the stone the builders have rejected has become the chief cornerstone. We are living stones built on him and in him, regardless of circumstances. The church may look very different three years from now. That’s fine. It will continue to be the church of Jesus Christ.
COVID-19 realities are changing every day, and our need to be nourished by the Word and the Spirit might change along with it. On this day, I am nourished by the five practices described here, and I trust that our faithful Lord will draw us to other themes in Scripture as times and circumstances require. “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it” (I Thess. 5: 23-24).
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