In late January, the U.S. had its first confirmed coronavirus case. Though the coronavirus was in the news, it seemed far away, like the SARS outbreak in 2003 or the Ebola epidemic that began in 2013.
On Feb. 29, the U.S. reported its first confirmed COVID-19 death. Within two weeks, President Trump had banned most visitors from Europe and declared a national emergency. Since that time, COVID-19 has dominated nearly everyone’s thinking.
I am a pastor, and pastors are always thinking about the church. What does God want us to do? How can we love people in the church at their point of need? How can we bless and help those outside the church? How can we grow in our knowledge of God and our experience of his grace?
Over the past two months, much of our thinking about the church has circled around the coronavirus. First, it was: can we continue meeting together for worship services? That quickly morphed to questions about technologies: what platforms should we use for online services, staff and board meetings? How can our employees work from home? Will we be forced to lay off staff?
Every day for months, church leaders (like most Americans) have had to deal with COVID-19 decisions. Stream services? Apply for the PPP? Reopen? How will we social distance when we are back together? When should Sunday school restart? How about Family Ministries meetings? When will it be safe to resume children’s in-person programming?
Such things need to be considered, of course, but COVID-19 cannot be all that we think about. There are other things going on. Tomorrow, I will officiate a service for a family who lost their loved one. It will be the fourth such service in two weeks, including one for a good friend and co-worker. None of them had the coronavirus. Life (and death) goes on, even in a pandemic.
If the pandemic (and the politics that circle around it like turbulence around a hurricane’s eye) is all we can think about, we will miss out on life. We will miss out on the good God is always doing, even in the storm. We may also fail to avoid the bad things that happen independently of the virus.
A few years ago, some Hollywood director must have realized the impact a collision scene - particularly one viewers do not see coming - would have on an audience. Since then, one director after another has used the unforeseen T-bone collision for its shock value. I wonder, as we stare down the road the pandemic is taking, if we are on such a collision course with the unseen.
Something like that has happened on the international scene. According to USA Today, while the U.S. was giving its attention to the pandemic, Iran was harassing our warships in the Persian Gulf, a Russian fighter harried a U.S. surveillance plane over the Mediterranean, and North Korea launched a barrage of missiles.
This kind of thing happens in ordinary people’s lives too. A lawyer fixes his eyes on the path to becoming a partner - big cases, long hours, the obligatory schmoozing - and doesn’t notice his family falling apart. Then comes the shocking collision, the broken family, the injured people.
The biblical writer tells Christians to “fix your eyes on Jesus.” The founder and perfecter of the faith is the believer’s point of reference, though “point of reference” may be misleading since it suggests something stationary. Jesus, however, is not stationary. He did not say, “Sit and watch me,” but “Come, follow me.”
Following him - which includes doing what he taught us to do in the ways he demonstrated - requires faith at all times, not just during a crisis. Believers trust him to know what potential collisions are coming and lead them away from them - to lead them “not into temptation” (or “trial” as the word means).
When we follow Jesus in a crisis - COVID-19 is but one example - we will not be fixated on the things everyone else is talking about. We will not be overawed by the crisis. We will deal with it appropriately, retain our emotional balance, and become a source of hope and peace to friends and family.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Michigan. His blog, “The Way Home,” is at shaynelooper.com.