As is often the case in July, my thoughts turn to Christmas. On this occasion, however, I am not thinking about celebrating our newborn King or gathering with family and friends. Instead over the last few weeks, I have been pondering a few dark lines from one of my favorite Christmas songs, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The verses state:
In despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men
Why do these verses capture my attention right now? Because it is where I have been for the last bit as I see the news around us about the coronavirus: Frustrated. Isolated. Numb. More and more people I know are getting sick as cases balloon in America. Churches can’t meet together. Businesses have closed their doors. Schools are shutting down. It seems all of us are in a dark and lonely moment.
The impact on churches
As a Christian, it is hard to survey the news and developments about the virus and not come away with the impression that COVID-19 is hitting Christians in a particular way because of our call to live in community (Heb. 10:25).
Based on what we currently understand about this virus and how it spreads through personal contact, most churches have chosen to forego gathering together with local officials issuing requests that they go back to online gathering, upending our crucial weekly biblical rhythm of gathering together as God’s people that we cherish (Heb. 10:25). The act of singing together as the church is precluded in many contexts, inhibiting a vital way many of us express worship toward God (Col 3:16). And we certainly can’t embrace one another physically right now as we welcome friends to church, a sign of support we have for fellow believers (1 Thess. 5:26). Funerals, small groups, and even our church business meetings in many areas have been postponed, delayed, or cancelled. And there is no timeframe for when they will be able to resume again safely.
I am so frustrated beyond description that I cannot wisely do many of these things in this seemingly interminable season. And there is no worldly replacement for them. Online gatherings are helpful, but they never can replace the physical gathering of the body of Christ that I hold dear.
Recently, as my city began reopening, it seemed like in-person worship was about to return to my local church. Plans were painstakingly made. Procedures communicated well in advance based on local health guidance. A soft opening even took place so our church staff and a select few members of the congregation could account for every possible procedure and precaution to keep our people safe.
My pastor and the ministers on our staff, all dear friends, were brimming with enthusiasm to carefully welcome back our congregation. I was so happy they were going to be able to personally see the flock God has given them the privilege of leading, even if it was behind masks and socially distanced.
Then, it all came to a grinding halt.
Like many places around the country, cases of the virus have spiked to record levels in Nashville. Church buildings have closed again. Consequently, all that energy, momentum, and planning was wiped away in an instant. Like David in his darkest moment, I, too, “cry aloud to the Lord, I plead aloud to the Lord for mercy” (Psalm 142:1).
The virus hits home
And no one, it seems, is immune from this pervasive virus. It affects young and old, Christian and unbeliever alike. Just this week, my father told me we now have several members of our extended family who have contracted the virus because they gathered for a funeral in order to celebrate the homegoing of a beloved grandmother. Now we have a 50-year-old relative, cousins in their 20s, and an eight-month-old child all positive with COVID-19. Again, I cry out with David, “my heart is overcome with dismay” (Psalm 143:4).
Pastors who are being responsible are even testing positive. I’ve exchanged messages with two in the last week who have coronavirus. These aren’t pastors purposefully leading their people in defiance of local health warnings. These are faithful Southern Baptist shepherds trying to love their church, serve their communities responsibly, and work within the guidance local officials are providing.
Similarly, I see churches all across our nation who have worked tirelessly for months in places like California now forced to change plans as the virus returns for a second wave there. And all of this is occurring with historic levels of economic distress and cultural strife at the same time. Is any more evidence needed of the “thorns and thistles” (Gen. 3:18) from the fall to show we are in a world that has been shattered by sin?
The sheer exhaustion from all this is almost too much for some to bear, myself included. It would be so easy, even as Christians, to give in to the despair; to add our voices to the outrage; to declare open rebellion against those in authority; to denigrate the experts; and to turn away from the Lord and lash out against our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The hope beyond this virus
But then I return to that Christmas hymn which reminds us: “Then rang the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor does he sleep.” God is still on his throne. That is a freeing thought in a season of social imprisonment and postponed gatherings.
In my mind, the testing of this season and of churches unable to gather is a matter of obedience before the Lord, who seems to be calling us to “love our neighbor” as we sacrifice our desire for the greater good. In so doing, we are called to give up much in this moment. But, we are called to be a people of sacrifice (Luke 9:23-24; Gal. 2:20). And that may mean sacrificing more than just our earthly preferences. For now, it includes many of our weekly rhythms as we seek to grow in Christ and coming together for corporate worship.
I am convinced the Lord is teaching us something in this season of immense challenge. So, let this be a time when Christians will be known for the goodwill we are spreading and the display of our humble obedience. May it be a time when we are gathering in spirit and solidarity for those made vulnerable by this sickness, and when we are crucifying our inwardly-focused preferences so that others may live and be safe. Above all, may it be a time of transformation, when we mature from being mere hearers to doers of the Word (James 1:22). What sweet joy it will be if this is our testimony as a community coming out of this troubling season—a testimony that will undoubtedly peal louder than a bell in the silence of a cold, clear Christmas morning.