According to a new poll of over 1000 U.S. Christians conducted by the University of Chicago Divinity School, almost two-thirds of those who believe in God say that the corona-virus pandemic is a message from God to humanity.
Let’s explore that idea for a moment. Imagine that you believed in a God who providentially arranges pestilential global illnesses as a way of teaching us all a lesson. Depending on your level of belief, you may not have to imagine all that hard. After all, it’s not the first time that God has sent plagues along to deliver his judgment — at least according to the Bible.
So, if God were really trying to teach us a lesson here, through COVID-19, what would those lessons be?
Ralph Drollinger — the pastor who leads a weekly bible study group for members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet — has a few ideas. In a blog post entitled “Is God Judging America Today?” Drollinger appeared to blame the coronavirus pandemic on several groups, including those who have “a proclivity toward lesbianism and homosexuality,” environmentalists and those who deny the existence of God for igniting “God’s wrath.”
Still, I can’t seem to shake this nagging suspicion that old Ralph might be using the Bible to reinforce his own ideas and prejudices. Lots of Christians boldly declare that the wrath of God has been completely satisfied through Jesus, but then they still like to whip out the “wrath” card when it suits them for the purpose of perpetuating their own fears and biases. Sure, it’s not like God will flood the whole world again to punish all the wicked sinners, as he did in the days of Noah, but hey… global pandemics are still on the cards for God — at least according to Pastor Ralph.
In spite of Ralph Drollinger’s cheerfully irresponsible religious dogma, is it possible that God really could be teaching us something through the COVID-19 crisis? If He is, maybe it consists of more substance than hating on minority groups and atheists. Maybe — just maybe — God wants to remind us of these much more important lessons.
You are Not in Control
To be in control of our own destiny, career, or financial situation is an almost unquestionable moral value in modern society. The popular phrase “Take control of your life” even sounds mature and spiritual. It is key premise behind nearly every self-help book. But COVID-19 is teaching the planet that we are clearly not in control.
According to Pope Francis, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed “our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities.”
It’s a hard lesson to take. This lack of control initially feels like a loss, a humiliation, a stepping backward, an undesired subjection. I certainly don’t like the feeling of everything that we thought was certain being thrown up into the air. However, recognizing our lack of control is a universal starting point for a serious spiritual walk towards wisdom and truth. It is a teaching found in the mystical writings of practically all religions — you are not in control. Accepting that we are not in control situates us correctly in the universe. To experience real peace in this world, we have to come to know that we are not steering this ship. Anything to the contrary is all to much pressure for a person to carry.
Love Your Neighbor
I only just met my neighbors recently — the ones who I’ve been living next door to for the past five years.
The occasion was Anzac Day — the Australian equivalent of the USA’s Memorial Day. Usually, on Anzac Day, people gather enmasse to remember those who fought and died in wars to serve and protect our country. It is marked by memorial services, parades and marches attended by thousands of people across the nation.
Not this year, though. Coronavirus canceled all Anzac Day celebrations.
Not to be deterred, the Returned and Services League (RSL) came up with an idea for commemorating Anzac Day as we sheltered in place in our homes. The concept was simple. At sunrise on Anzac Day, people were encouraged to light a candle and stand in their driveway to observe a minute’s silence for the fallen.
So, with my family I gathered in the driveway of my home at dawn to remember those who fought and died in war. A lone bugler pierced the silence of the morning with a haunting rendition of the “Last Post,” as literally hundreds of people stood in our candle-lined street, as far as the eye could see. It became for me a truly profound moment of solidarity with my local community — the likes of which I had never experienced before.
When the memorial service ended, we greeted our neighbors the for the first time — the ones we had lived next door to for the past five years. From a good, safe distance, we have a conversation with them and it was very pleasant indeed. It’s strange that we consider ourselves to be friendly people and yet we did not even know the names of those living closest to us.
It was then that it occurred to me that COVID-19 has come upon us with an usual side-effect. It has pushed the pause button on globalization and forced us all back into our local communities. All of a sudden, our hyper-connected world is not as connected as it once was. Borders are closed and measures are imposed upon us to limit our ability to travel, to gather and to move.
And into this situation, I heard God say to me in whispered tones, “Love your neighbor. Love your actual neighbor.” If God were sending us any message through the time, surely it’s this.
The Scattered Church is no Less Effective
We read in the Bible in Acts 8 that a great persecution broke out against Christians in the city of Jerusalem and the church was forced to scatter. Yet, as they went, they spread the good news wherever they went, and so the church grew. Had the church not been scattered, it may never have breached the walls of Jerusalem. Sometimes, disconnecting from the mechanism of organized religion is the best thing that can happen.
The Bible never mentions a building called ‘Church’ anyway. Never. In fact, the Bible never speaks of church in those terms. The buildings came later when the state got a hold of the church, under Roman Emperor Constantine in 312 AD.
On the other hand, Jesus said where two or three are gathered He is present. Two or three — not 40 or 150 or 6,000. Not an auditorium with a speaker, a band and dozens of rows of chairs. When Jesus spoke about the church, he was talking about people. People are the building blocks of church, not bricks and mortar. That is why church began in the humble homes of believers and that is why church can still continue in the humble homes of believers even as we are forced apart and religious services are put on hold.
In reality, the coronavirus crisis is actually causing church to return to its traditional roots. Jesus never instructed believers to buy land, build buildings, establish a weekly worship service, create a liturgy or institute a sacrament. He simply commanded believers not to forget Him; to live together, and to eat, and to remember. A building is not needed. This Christian faith is a fully portable experience. Real Church starts in your own home. The scattered Church is often the most effective church.
Look to the Interests of Others
Like many people, my immediate response to the uncertainty of this pandemic was fear and anxiety, and an overwhelming temptation to turn inward, and buffer myself and my family against outside uncertainties. This is why many people in many countries resorted to panic buying, emptying shelves of essential items with scant regard for the needs of others.
Then into this situation the words of Philippians 2:4 penetrate our own selfishness: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Through all the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, surely this is God’s call to humanity. So, let me ask you this: what have you shared with others during this time? Is your pantry still bulging with enough food to feed your family for months on end, while others struggle to get by? What can you share?
In years to come, I am certain we will look back and laugh at the time when toilet paper became such a rare commodity, that people would line up outside supermarkets hours before they opened just to be able to access this precious asset. I was grateful to be gifted some just as we were about to run out, by someone who was able to look not only to their own interests. What a sweet relief it was!
Sorry Ralph, I Disagree
Sadly, there are those who will use COVID-19 to leverage their own position of power. There are those who will perpetually make God out to be a malevolent bully in the sky, raining down his judgement and wrath on the people who challenge and threaten our long-held prejudices.
Sorry Pastor Ralph, I disagree with you. God isn’t punishing us for being too accepting of the LGBITQ+ community. Nor is he punishing the environmentalists or the atheist or anyone else you classify as morally reprehensible. But maybe God is calling us to greater empathy, kindness and compassion — the part of his message that you seem to have overlooked. If COVID-19 really is a message from God, I’m quite confident that you missed it in favor of a different kind of message that comes not from above.
On the other hand, the words of Pope Francis again ring true: “The worldwide coronavirus pandemic is not God’s judgment on humanity, but God’s call on people to judge what was most important to them and resolve to act accordingly from now on. It is a time to decide to live differently, live better, love more and care for others.”
This post was previously published on Backyard Church and is republished here with permission from the author.
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