Judith M. Dinsmore
OP pastors responded to this spring’s global coronavirus crisis by articulating age-old insights from the Word of God. Like the church through the centuries, from the weight of an all-consuming trial, they pressed spiritual truth.
The health and finances of congregants and communities were the foremost concerns for Benji Swinburnson, pastor of Lynnwood OPC in Lynnwood, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. That area saw the first wave of COVID-19 cases in the United States, in early March. By the middle of the month, the city was a ghost town. Physical needs can be met diaconally, Swinburnson clarified.
But worry? That’s spiritual.
“Anxiety is the main thing,” he observed. “It’s not so much the virus, as people being home. Everyone’s schedule is getting readjusted.” Schools closed, events cancelled, parents working from attics and basements. All are triggers for the anxiety that already pervasively afflicts Americans, including those in Swinburnson’s congregation.
A few weeks before the pandemic, Swinburnson, in his series on Leviticus, preached on the instructions for a Sabbath year every seventh year, during which the Israelites were to suspend normal farming activity and live off the land. “I kept saying in the sermon, ‘we have no frame of reference for a whole Sabbath year where you don’t work,’” he said. Now, of course, we do.
The whole world does. Countries, industries, institutions—all slowed down for this pandemic.
“We’re basically being thrust into it against our will,” Swinburnson said. “People are resting. They’re not going to work. They’re required by legal authority to suspend all that normal life.”
The forced quarantine has been a little like the Sabbath itself, outside of our control and awfully inconvenient, from an earthly perspective.
“My wife and I took a brief walk in the neighborhood to get a bit of sunshine. I was considering how quiet it is,” Glenn Ferrell said. He serves as pastor of First OPC in San Francisco, California—the second US city to be flooded with COVID-19 cases. “Then I remembered 2 Chronicles 36:21: ‘To fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.’” When the Israelites were sent into exile, the land that they had unfaithfully plowed and planted during the Sabbath years was able to rest at last.
“Is the Lord reclaiming some of our Sabbaths?” Ferrell wondered. “He’s forcing us to take a rest, whether we want to or not, from all nonessential stuff.”
Being suspended of our sense of normalcy and stripped of the affirmation of social contact turns us toward the essentials in humility. If we cannot work, we can only throw ourselves on the mercy of the one doing the work in the first place: Christ. In his presence, even if quarantined, rest is sweet and anxiety-free.
The quieter outside, the more deafening on-screen coronavirus news became.
“I’ve never experienced such a furor over something,” William Shishko said. He is pastor of The Haven OPC, a new church plant in Long Island, New York, at what became the US epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic. “Look at the relentless pressure of the media: they’re like piranhas with blood. It’s a feeding frenzy.”
The furor wasn’t confined to traditional media. Social media exploded, too, and with more than clever quarantine quips. Long posts scrutinized the self-isolation of others. The “others” bit back.
In the midst of it, “don’t forget the Bible’s call to sobriety,” Shishko cautioned. “You cannot allow yourself to be intoxicated by the media or by economic forecasts.” Paul wrote to Timothy that “God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 2:7). “Self-control” in that verse literally means “a saved mind,” Shishko explained in a sermon shortly after the city shut down. “It means a mind that thinks differently than it is driven to think by external sources, free from undue excitement and excess.”
The Apostle Peter, too, gives a call for sobriety: “The end of all things is at hand, therefore be sober-minded and self-controlled for the sake of your prayers” (1 Pet. 4:7). Plagues like the coronavirus are previews of coming “attractions” at the end of time, Shishko ventured. The next event on the timeline, both for Peter and for us, is the end of all things, and, as we look toward that end, both worry and fury distract us from our sacred duty: prayer.
“How much have you prayed, and to what extent have your fears quenched your prayer life?” Shishko asked his congregation. “[Peter] says, keep a cool head for the sake of your prayers—and keep loving one another earnestly.”
“The future from our perspective is uncertain,” said Dhananjay Khanda, pastor of Holy Trinity Presbyterian in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Like many OP sessions, Khanda and his elders agonized over the decision to cancel services. They were comforted by God’s sovereignty, even over this. “The future is not uncertain from the Lord’s perspective.”
In early March, William Shishko flew from New York to Georgia for the funeral of OP pastor Zecharias Weldeyesus’s son, Yafet. In the airports, where sanitary measures were in full force, one thing could not be kept clean: escalator handrails. “I was in angst going down and up the escalators,” Shishko remembered. Permanent signs instructed passengers to use the handrails. Temporary signs warned passengers not to brush the handrails, as they were almost impossible to sanitize. “Every time I touched one, I went through spasms of guilt,” Shishko said, tongue in cheek.
It’s vital that we stay clean. It’s also impossible to stay clean.
Could it be, Shishko wonders, that COVID-19 is giving us a vivid lesson in a spiritual truth? “Sin, historically, has been called the plague of plagues. If we were as fastidious in dealing with sin as we are about dealing with the coronavirus, we would be an exemplarily holy people,” he said.
Thanks to the good order our good God has given to this world, we can take precautionary measures against disease. We can wash hands for twenty seconds, wipe surfaces, and maintain social distance. Yet even fastidious care cannot totally protect us physically. And it certainly cannot protect us spiritually.
“We’ve got to see this as a reflection of what we’re dealing with in the spiritual realm,” Shishko said gently. “We’re all facing something far worse than the coronavirus, and that’s sin.”
Andrew Miller agrees. Pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Miller wrote a devotional on the danger of spiritual sickness—a danger that is much more poignantly understood in the context of a pandemic. “Wouldn’t it be such a shame if people take so many precautions to avoid a physical sickness, and then neglect their spiritual health?” he reflected.
Miller looked for insight to the letters of hymnwriter John Newton for one particular reason: “Newton loved the image of Christ as our physician,” he said. In a letter to a friend, Newton wrote, “All our soul complaints amount but to this—that we are very sick; and if we did not find ourselves to be so—we would not duly prize the infallible Physician.”
As Christ-followers, each prized bottle of hand sanitizer and spray can of bleach can signal to us, now and for years to come, the precious healing work of our great Physician. He alone is our hope.
“COVID-19 is a good reminder that we are dependent upon the Lord,” observed Khanda. “None of these things can separate us from the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, May 2020.