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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 The daily passing of the peace in chapel, a time marked by handshakes and hugs, has been replaced by spoken greetings and waving.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.