April 2020 – Dr. Clyde Ervine engages the COVID-19 pandemic theologically to discern possible lessons for God’s people as they pursue faithfulness.
A month ago, I was enjoying spring weather in Northern Ireland, the place of my birth, meeting family and old friends, talking about this and that, but not about the topic we’ve talked about ever since – COVID-19. After arriving back in Canada on March 13, and during the following two weeks of self-isolation, I was relieved to be home and able to sleep in my own bed; home means comfort, familiarity and security. But now COVID-19 is all we hear about, as daily bulletins announce decreasing freedom of movement and increasing numbers of those infected by the virus, and those who have died from it.
I confess that my emotions have been all over the map: from initial disbelief to anxious worry; from deep sadness at the scale of suffering to cheers for the courage of frontline medical personnel; from wanting to do ‘my bit’ for the greater good to wanting to get out and pretend that life hasn’t changed, and that it’s all only a dream.
But life has changed. You and I know people living in nursing homes who are now deprived of visits from family and friends; you and I know families where a loved one has died, but where no worship service has been permitted, depriving those who grieve of the comfort and companionship of the family of faith; you and I know others with health issues other than COVID-19, who are deprived of the medical attention they need; and you and I know that millions in our country, temporarily unable to work, have been deprived of income. We live in a world of great loss. Everything has changed.
I don’t know about you, but when my life changes in a negative way, I instinctively look for something good that may lie hidden within unwelcome circumstances. What comes to mind in relation to COVID-19 is that we’re all in this crisis together; no amount of health and wealth makes us immune from an indiscriminate virus. In my lifetime, widespread health threats usually impacted far away, impoverished parts of the globe, not those living in a stable, comfortable Canada. But no longer. COVID-19 is no respecter of persons, region, religion or class. In other words, each of us faces the same danger, and the same challenge to act selflessly for the sake of others. There’s a bonding comfort in that thought.
Another ‘good thing’, I think, is the rare sense of community palpable across our nation. Gone, at least for now, is the hyper-political partisanship that often distorts federal and provincial decision-making; in its place, we see erstwhile political enemies work together in search of medical and economic solutions. But community is also very local, for as I walk my dog Fergus along the river twice each day, I find myself more ready than usual to say “Hello” [six feet apart, of course] to those I meet, and they to me. Our common enemy, COVID-19, is releasing the sort of neighbourliness that restrained Canadians often resist. Speaking of community, many are taking time to stay in touch with and support one another, by telephone, email, Skype – and in my case, Tupperware containers of tasty muffins left at my front door! And though a techno-peasant, I visit the websites of various congregations to read or hear thoughtful messages of reassurance. I’ve appreciated the warm, pastoral preaching of Gregory Davidson, my successor at Central, Hamilton, and a timely word on how COVID-19 offers us the opportunity to rethink what ‘Sabbath’ means, from Rob Congram, minister at Shakespeare Presbyterian, and encouraging emails and YouTube sermons from Virginia Head, my minister at St. Andrew’s, Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Nevertheless, tough questions keep troubling our heads: what will be the final toll of this pandemic? How many will die? How many will face financial ruin? Most important of all: where is God? When big problems arise, I tend to react by trying to defend God from those who want to pin the blame on the God who, I’ve always and gladly believed, ‘so loved the world that He gave his only Son’ [John 3:16 NRSV]. This tendency is often followed by a quick assertion of God’s sovereignty; that is, I say to myself, “whatever happens, and no matter how bad things get, God is God, and God’s kingdom will prevail”. But true as this is, it feels wrong if it’s all we say about God.
I’m conscious of the fact that this is Holy Week, and that prior to the glory of Easter morning, we annually recall the ugliness of how God’s Son was ultimately betrayed and the agony of his ignominious death that swiftly followed. In other words, there was no shortcut to Christ’s victorious kingship; the road to that, took him through doubt, darkness and, dare I say it, hell.
I’m no longer a settled pastor of a congregation, but for the over thirty years that I was, it amazed me how high a percentage of my congregations skipped Holy Week church services; people would show up on Palm Sunday but weren’t seen again until Easter morning. Part of the reason for that, I expect, is wanting to believe in a God who is a victorious, sovereign King, not a God who gets caught up in and is brought low by the world’s messy suffering and sin, the very things we try so hard to avoid.
But what if, as I believe Scripture teaches, God was victoriously present, not just when Easter morning revealed an empty tomb, but as Jesus prayed in the Garden, with God’s power holding him steady when tempted to avoid the suffering and sin about to engulf him? What if God was lovingly present, not just as the risen Jesus showed himself to his disciples, but as Jesus, God’s Son, hung on a cross to atone once for all for the sin of the world?
Faced with the devastation that comes with COVID-19, let’s not too quickly try to protect God, or insulate God behind a wall of divine sovereignty; instead let’s dare to believe that the God revealed by the Lord Jesus meets us in our doubt and worry, comes to us when we’re alone or lost, and comforts and strengthens us when we’re caught up in heartbreak for our own lives or the lives of others. At a time like this, I, like many of you, reach for the Bible to lighten my way. Few verses are more apropos than the following from Hebrews 4. Recalling Jesus’ suffering and death, the author writes: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” [Hebrews 4:15-16 NRSV]
It’s vital to know in our present moment of need that the God we trust isn’t some distant deity, but the God whom Jesus revealed, the God who is with us, not just in times of victory, but in times of trouble. That’s why I recently valued hearing Gregory Davidson preach at Central, Hamilton on the text: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ [Psalm 46:1 NRSV]. Where is God? Not outside of our trouble, but in the midst of it, helping us to bear and ultimately bring us through the trouble now being caused by COVID-19.
There are undoubtedly many other ways to think about COVID-19 that I haven’t yet reflected on; but these words I commend to your heart and mind to help steady your faith in Christ, and then use it to serve others in need.