Updated: Apr 5, 2020
Like many who are reading this article, I am currently holed up in a cave (my office) in self-isolation (staying away from everyone except my wife, my cat, and my two dogs). You don’t need me to tell you that we are living in extraordinary times and experiencing unprecedented change. I don’t know how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last, or what life will be like when it’s all over. But in the midst of it all, I would like to make the following observations:
1. Anyone who uses this as an opportunity to proclaim divine judgment is a jerk!
Yes, I know that we are all sinners, and that as a result, the earth is under a curse. And I know that at certain times in history, the world reaches a tipping point in its flagrant violation of God’s laws, and we reap the consequences (think Noah and the great flood, or the plagues of Egypt, or the eruption of Vesuvius, or the Black Death). Nevertheless, this is not a time for grandstanding on street corners or pontificating in church pulpits; rather, it is a time for compassion, for loving one’s neighbour, and personal repentance.
2. God is using this crisis to dismantle the edifice of organised religion
Like most Jews, Jesus’ disciples were justifiably proud of the temple in Jerusalem. After all, it represented the epicentre of Jewish religious and national life, and had taken years to build. Jesus shocked his disciples by saying, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down” (Mat 24.2). This came to pass some 40 years later, just as Jesus predicted, during the Roman siege of Jerusalem.
Karl Marx once said, “Religion is the opiate of the people.” I tend to agree with that, however, I would differentiate between organised religion and personal faith or spirituality. It seems to me that God is using this current crisis to dismantle man-made religious systems and to help people rediscover the true meaning of personal faith and spiritual experience.
Churches, mosques, and synagogues are being forced to close their doors. Some churches and ministries are conducting ‘virtual services’ and streaming them online to parishioners who are able to access the internet. However, early statistics indicate that the number of people tuning into these broadcasts are considerably less than the number of people that would normally attend a worship service or Mass.
It seems that people are being forced to encounter God in the sanctity of their own hearts and the privacy of their own homes. For example, one Catholic website is encouraging people to stay at home, read the Bible, pray, and engage in spiritual contemplation — all without the benefit of a confessing priest or a liturgical Mass. Similarly, evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are learning how to worship God without the environmental accessories to which they have become accustomed (think rock bands, charismatic preachers, strobe lights, and audio-visual presentations). I don’t know about you, but I can see the hand of God in all of this.
The 13th century Dominican Friar, St. Thomas Aquinas, defined spiritual communion as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament and a loving embrace as though we had already received Him”. Perhaps this is a time to experience the loving embrace of Jesus in the seclusion of our own homes!
3. The credibility of many self-proclaimed ‘prophets’ has been tarnished
If I’ve heard people say it once, I’ve heard them say it a hundred times: “We didn’t see this coming.” Contrast that with the prophet Agabus who came down to Antioch from Jerusalem and “showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar” (Acts 11.28). Agabus’ timely forecast enabled the church to prepare for the crisis and send aid to the impoverished believers in Judea.
We’ve been drinking our own bath water for too long. We’ve convinced ourselves that we are more powerful than we really are. Yet, as of this writing, the Pope is bunkered down in his papal apartments, unable to venture out and celebrate Mass at the highest and holiest time of the church year, the Archbishop of Canterbury is isolated at Lambeth Palace, and scores of celebrity preachers, TV evangelists, and denominational leaders are hiding in ‘dens, caves, and strongholds’ (Judges 6.2) and trying to manage their empires via social media.
If nothing else, this pandemic has exposed the impotence of religious leaders who for many years have strutted the stage, purporting to be ‘great ones’ (Acts 8.9). There doesn’t seem to a Moses among them with the prophetic foresight to see this coming, let alone the spiritual authority to stop it .…. or an Elijah with the power to open the heavens and bring healing to the earth (James 5.17-18).
4. “Of the people, by the people, for the people”
And so, in the absence of real spiritual leadership, it behoves us to galvanize a movement of prayer, “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, to quote Abraham Lincoln. For the promise of God still holds true: “If my people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chron 7.14).