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Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the woman who received a text message that said, “I am here for you.” Immediately, she wrote back saying how good that made her feel. She’d been going through so much lately and was grateful for her friend’s expression of support. Then she admitted that she’d lost her phone contacts and wasn’t sure who was texting her.

“Your Uber driver,” was the response.

Funny, but also telling.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to get an “I am here for you,” text daily. Not from an Uber driver, but from God.

Where is God? Especially now, as the stock market is on a roller coaster and toilet paper suddenly is the thing to hoard, all because the COVID-19 virus is spreading . . . like a virus. Even as I was writing this, the World Health Organization just declared it a pandemic. Now would be a good time for God to show up.

We turn to God, or at least to the church, in these moments. Remember how churches filled after 9/11? Not so with this disaster. It seems inevitable that in this case we’re about to violate Hebrews 10:25 and give up the habit of meeting together. It’s already happened in Italy, as the New York Times has reported. How long before something like that happens here?

We’re all trying to contain it. I have washed my hands more in the past week than the past year, and don’t get me started on the newfound revelation of how often I touch my face. Every time I hear “Don’t touch your face,” my right cheek itches and I touch my face.

At my little school we’ve stopped touching each other. The daily passing of the peace in chapel, a time marked by handshakes and hugs, has been replaced by spoken greetings and waving. Our communion servers already were using hand sanitizer prior to distributing the elements, now we’re talking about having them wear gloves.

I doubt that extra hand sanitizer and not touching each other will be enough. Social isolation is the best way to stop the spread of the coronavirus. It just seems like a matter of time before we stop worshipping together. Michigan State University just suspended in-person classes. How long before Calvin, Hope, and Western follow suit?

When Calvin University pulled the plug on the Festival of Faith and Writing a week ago it seemed that they might be being overcautious. Today, with news of confirmed cases in Michigan, their actions seem reasonable.

With schools stopping classes, and other large gatherings cancelled, the suspension of worship services seems inevitable. I wonder if we’ll have church on Easter.

How does faith survive without corporate worship? I don’t know about you, but I tend to go through the week losing my faith only to have it restored by the rhythms and practice of worship. The communal nature of worship is important to me. Sometimes when we confess our sins or say the affirmation of faith I get swept along by the community. I don’t always have it in me to agree with every point of doctrine, but hearing the voice of Brad, who sits behind me, saying the words makes it possible for me to say them.

It means something to me that most of the New Testament epistles were sent to communities. I imagine Paul saying, “I don’t mean you personally have to have the mind of Christ, I mean you as a group have the mind of Christ.” When it comes to church, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The faith of the church is greater than the combined faith of the individual members.

What will happen to us if we stop seeing each other? Stop gathering as a community? Stop connecting with each other? And, as I mentioned earlier, where do we see God in the midst of this?

Frederick Buechner tells the story of a speaker in a church on the night of 9/11 saying, “At times like these God is useless.”

Buechner’s first thought was how appalling, followed by how brave, followed by how true. “When horrors happen we can’t use God to make them unhappen,” he writes, “any more than we can use a flood of light to put out a fire or Psalm 23 to find our way home in the dark.” (Beyond Words, 84, 85)

Is God really useless?

I want God to miraculously stop the coronavirus. But God didn’t stop 9/11 or the Holocaust or the tornadoes that struck Nashville a little while ago. He doesn’t seem to be in the business of preventing disasters. COVID-19 is here and is going to get worse before it gets better. Does that create a theological problem? It doesn’t for me.

I believe Psalm 23 actually is how we find our way home in the dark. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death thou art with me” sounds a lot like “I am here for you.” I don’t think God ever abandons us. I’m not about to abandon God, even if I can’t go to church.

I find myself thinking about John 6, one of the Bible’s most incredible chapters, and the memorable exchange between Jesus and Peter at the end of the chapter. Jesus feeds five thousand and walks on water at the beginning of the chapter, and as a result wowed multitudes come wanting to make him their king. He withdraws and when the crowds catch up Jesus tells them they have to eat his flesh and drink his blood. These revolting ideas scandalize many people, who then walk away. At this point Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “What about you?” Peter’s answer always gets me: “Where else are we going to go?”

Where are we going to go when we cannot go to church? This crisis could be an exciting opportunity for the church. Forced out of routines, we’d need to find new ways to hear God.

Maybe we could start a new practice and send text messages to each other on God’s behalf. They wouldn’t have to be long. Five words would do it: “I am here for you.”

That would do it. I’d like that.

*****

Note: Obviously the situation surrounding COVID-19 is very fluid. We trust you read The Twelve for commentary, not for hard news or how best to address a pandemic. Thanks.

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is a retired minister in the Reformed Church in America. He resides in Holland, Michigan.

12 Comments

  • Wonderful read. Thank you. Couldn’t you have mentioned NBTS as well?

    Lenten blessings to you.

  • stan seagren says:

    “I don’t know about you, but I tend to go through the week losing my faith only to have it restored by the rhythms and practice of worship.”
    Apart from the excellent commentary on the virus, these words are so brutally and self-compassionately honest!
    Let us pray we do see new opportunities for connection with God and each other in this time.
    A parishioner sent this:
    Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
    for in you I take refuge.
    I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
    until the disaster has passed. Ps 57:1
    Thank you Jeff!

  • mstair says:

    “Now would be a good time for God to show up.”
    “He doesn’t seem to be in the business of preventing disasters.”

    …unless He’s preventing even bigger ones we are simply not aware of …

    The mortality rate of “the current virus” is about 3.4%. But, about viruses … they mutate … capable of becoming more … or less lethal …
    Now that’s the kind of probability God can influence with minimal effort. Something we might suggest to Him in prayer …

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      mstair, I was thinking the same thing on the prevented disasters. Funny thing about disasters that never happen, most of them we would not have known to freak out about. And of course plenty of disasters that we were prone to freak out about never happened either (Y2K anyone?).

      Even more importantly, every day he withholds his just punishment for sin is a day in which he prevents disaster. We have no idea just how much God’s grace prevents us from suffering.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    With you I thank God for the “voice of Brad” and the HS prompting him to confess our faith.

  • Henk Ottens says:

    Your good words add a much-needed perspective on these “interesting” times. Thanks for arranging them with your inimitable skill.

  • JIM KORTMAN says:

    This comment will ring true with another author here on the 12, as we share the same “Uncle Marinus.” Maybe I make this comment for JC Schaap’s benefit – as well as everyone else who may take comfort and direction.
    Approximately 33 years ago, I was sitting in the basement of the Calvin College Library visiting with my Uncle, Rev. Marinus Goote, who was employed as a curator of some from cataloging the history of the CRC. We were discussing my faith formation as I raided his M&M jar and drank his coffee.
    He asked me, “Jim, Psalm 23 is likely the most famous passage in the Bible, for sure in the book of Psalms. What is the most important single word in the Psalm?” As we discussed the various themes brought up, he lead me to a word I was not landing on – on my own. He stated “God is Sovereign, You are His, in all of this He is with you ‘through’ the process and trials of life.” The biggest take away being his presence, and whatever trial or challenge we are in, it is not the end of the journey. Only something we are passing through.
    A year later, when he married my wife and I, his text for the sermon was “Christ love compels me” from 2 Corinthians. That was to be and has become our married life’s verse. The point in the sermon – as we go “through” life, (married and all of life) may it be his love that compels our every action.
    As we are the Church, and find new ways to minister and support each other, Uncle Marinus’ charge for my life rings true today. We are on our way through this trial, and God is leading us through it.

    Blessings on your day as you reflect on God’s immense love for us – that he walks with us.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    A good word for us as concern heightens and restrictions tighten. I pray that we will not use God but I do pray that He will use us. Thanks for a meaningful and helpful blog.

    Harvey

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Jeff, for an article that brings comfort for many Christians. For those who are not Christian, they look for and find comfort in a variety of other means – family, friends, fellow workers, etc. For those looking in from the outside at Christianity, it looks like Christians do a lot of rationalizing and justifying for the God of the Bible. We have an explanation (or many explanations) for why the Corona Virus is devastating countries such as China and Italy without God seeming to lift a finger. He is characterize in the Bible as a great God of strength who performs great feats of power and love, especially for his chosen people, but also for those not chosen. Jesus feeds a crowd of 5,000 and then 4,000 from a child’s lunch, as mentioned in this article. But today, as Jeff implies with tongue in cheek, he seems useless. Powerful in the Bible, but not so much today. Do you think Deism might have it right when it attests to a mighty God, but one who, since creation, is not personally involved in the affairs of this world or people’s lives. The reality definitely seems to support such a perspective. That would be a reasonable conclusion. But who has ever said Christianity is reasonable? Thanks, Jeff.

  • RLG says:

    Jeff, you ask, what are we going to do when we can’t go to church? Yes, forced out of our routines, we can find new ways to hear God. We can text messages to each other such as, “I am here for you,” and ‘pretend’ they are from God. Hmm!

  • Mark McCallum says:

    It boggles my mind, the amount of tap dancing you all have to do to somehow reconcile your faith to a deity that is clearly either unable or unwilling to intercede in a tradgedy of this magnitude. I am, in a sad way , impressed that you seem to actually be capable of doing it!

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