by Mark Witas—
The president said something recently that I think a lot of people overlooked. Speaking of the COVID-19 virus, he said, “I don’t think this is something God is doing. I think it’s just something that took the world by surprise.”
There are people who, anytime there’s a natural disaster, proclaim that God is punishing the world for whatever sin the religious people decree is the most heinous to them at the time.
Jesus witnesses this kind of religion when He passes a blind man and His followers ask Him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2, ESV). In other words, what bad thing did these people do to anger God so much that He would cause this man to be blind?
This assumption is so foreign to Jesus that He almost doesn’t respond to it. He basically says, “Hey, stop these kinds of assumptions. This isn’t God bullying people; it’s just an opportunity for us to do good!” And then He heals the man.
Indeed, in John 9, instead of trying to root out the theological nuances of good and evil, Jesus turned something bad in the world into an opportunity to heal and shine the light of God’s goodness into the darkened world touched by sin.
So, in the face of a worldwide pandemic, let’s be like Jesus and keep our eye on the ball. Instead of theologizing about the why of the pandemic, it behooves us to ask: What can I do to repair the world? What can I do to heal the world? What can I do to point those in a dark world to the light of Jesus Christ?
These are the questions my church and staff have had to wrestle with after our governor ordered that all non-essential gatherings in our state be banned for the foreseeable future. All of a sudden, instead of gathering with 600 people every Sabbath to worship, pray, and dine together, my church staff is wrestling with how we can be effective shepherds to our flock as well as effective purveyors of God’s grace to a darkened world.
We are continuing to discuss our options, but to date, here are some of the things we’ve decided to do to in our sphere of influence:
1. As a church staff, we have decided to reach out to every member on our books. We are calling each person whose name appear in our directory or who attends our church. We ask how they are doing, how their state of mind is, and if they need anyone from the church to get anything for them. So far, this practice of reaching out has produced countless productive conversations, reunions, and affirmations. It has also led to hard conversations that have needed to happen for years.
2. We ask each person we call to pay it forward and call three more people from the church to connect or reconnect with.
3. We have, by necessity, moved our Wednesday night Bible study and our Sabbath worship services to the living room of the senior pastor (me.) We will be intentional about following safety recommendations—for instance, by not gathering with anyone outside of my household as an example of what we would expect from all responsible church members and citizens.
4. Leading by example, we are encouraging all members who are not immunocompromised to bring good into the world, especially during this time of trial. Each pastor on our staff is choosing a different way to contribute to the kingdom. My choice has been to work with our local food bank to deliver meals to underprivileged shut-ins. Every morning I show up at the food bank; I am handed a list of addresses and, for the rest of the morning, I bring food to hungry people. This, of course, allows me to engage with people in conversation about their circumstances, their view of life and God, and any other needs they may have. My favorite moment was when one recipient discovered that we had included two rolls of toilet paper in one of the food boxes. She grabbed the toilet paper, held it up above her head and danced, singing, “Praise ya Jesus! Praise ya Jesus!”
In the end, this pandemic cannot be our generation’s Goliath, intimidating and mocking us into quiet retreat and submission. This is our time to pick up our sling and a couple of stones and do some good in the world. We must view this as an opportunity to connect with our flock in ways that normal life wouldn’t allow, and to increase God’s kingdom in creative ways that are now open to us.
Mark Witas is lead pastor at Sunnyside Adventist Church in Portland, Oregon.