by J. Murdock—
In the fourth chapter of John, we meet a man who is in desperate need of a miracle. The man’s son is gravely ill and in need of healing. Jesus decides to enact a miracle of healing from afar, telling the man to believe His word and return home, where he will find his child safe and sound. The man does as he is instructed, and his son is saved.
Never have I looked at this story as anything other than a testimony to the power of belief. It wasn’t until the stay-at-home order took effect as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic that I began to study this section of Scripture differently. Jesus was able to do ministry over a long distance in order to deeply affect the life of someone He couldn’t physically see or touch. When church moved from an in-person experience to a purely digital affair, I thought of this story and wondered if we would be able to do as Jesus did—to bring life to people behind closed doors miles from where we stood each week. For me, as the Associate Pastor for Youth and Young Adults at Boulder Adventist Church in Boulder, Colorado, that meant inviting a group of people to meet online, where they are already living out their lives on social media platforms. With the elimination of travel time to and from Boulder, we increased our events by 500% and began offering vesper programs, youth and young adult Bible studies, family fun nights, and Sunday evening hangouts. Adjusting to the restrictions of a pandemic became one of the most fulfilling seasons of our ministry to youth and young adults in those early days.
But, as was perhaps said best by Robert Burns, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” Chaos came quicker than expected and more fiercely than we had anticipated. For our group, it came in the form of depression. We began hearing increasingly common reports of students returning to destructive habits such as cutting to cope with the anxiety. Parents began calling, distressed that their otherwise bright and cheery children were now despondent. Teens admitted that thoughts of suicide had been more prevalent for them lately. Then came the news that a young adult had attempted suicide. The long-distance miracle wasn’t working for us.
As it turns out, increasing programming, offering more interactivity online, and filling time with dynamic ice breakers, modified games, and devotional thoughts is not enough to counteract the challenges our community faces. All too quickly we encountered teenagers, young adults, and pre-professionals who were overcome by the panic of the news, along with seeing limited resources on supermarket shelves and fearing the deadly virus that was seeking to kill friends and family members. The numbers at each event began to wane and, more often than not, poor attendance was tied to a feeling of despair that Zoom was no longer able to quash. Likely it never had that ability in the first place.
At first, I believed the answer was to engineer a plan that would heal people as Jesus did that day in Capernaum. If we could only figure out how Christ was able to reach out into the world and touch people in a meaningful way, then we could then reasonably manufacture the same miracle through a screen. But I was wrong.
I have since called off the search to find Christ’s playbook to figure out how He was able to heal that kid from a distance. Jesus had a distinct and divine advantage that I will never have; He wasn’t alone in His activity. Jesus may have been physically standing in Cana, but His Spirit was already in the official’s home with the son. Jesus wasn’t projecting Himself through a screen to work the room—He was already there and was merely telling the man to believe that God was with him. Jesus’ job in that moment was to give the man a reason to see past the obstacle that kept him from seeing the Holy Spirit moving. When faced with death and fear, it is easy to be blinded to other things happening around you. Author and public speaker Jon Acuff says that our goal is to “pivot not panic” in order to see past obstacles that may be blocking us from seeing the Light. It seems that Jesus offers a way to do that.
This insight has led to a change in our approach to ministry here in Boulder. We follow Christ, believing we don’t need new plans that seem only to be destined to go astray. Instead of attempting to reinvent the wheel with digital advancements and programatic adjustments that will position us as leaders in the homes of those in our community, our goal is to find as many ways to point people to the Spirit as possible. He is already with them and is far more equipped to help chase out the darkness and re-instill hope in the lives of those overwhelmed by their circumstances than I or any other leader ever can be. Jesus merely told the man to believe, and while it is fun to play games (which we still do from time to time), the greater good requires refocusing the conversation away from the gloom of fear and back to the reality that God is with us through all of this.
Whenever we are able to go back to church on a regular basis, this lesson will still be relevant. Our hope is that whenever we are distant from our friends, family, and the church community, whether by choice or by government request, we will live in the truth that we are safe at home knowing that God is with us.
J. Murdock is associate pastor at Boulder Adventist Church in Boulder, Colorado.