by Mark Cravens
“Pandemic!” Just like that, our world immediately changed. The COVID-19 pandemic happened. The word “pandemic” most of us had never heard used in relation to a health crisis in America. Such a word, synonymous with plague and contagion, is suddenly threatening life in America. While a pandemic of sorts is not new across the world, it is new in our more recent, modern American civilization and it is frightening.
For most of us, this pandemic came out of nowhere. It was sudden, drastic and invasive. And for too many around the world it proved to be deadly. At the time of this writing, nearly 70,000 have died in America and well over 1 million diagnosed. A sweeping total of over 246,000 have died worldwide, with nearly 3.5 million diagnosed. It is no surprise that our world panicked! Our government, along with their health consultants, issued “stay at home” and “social distancing” orders for the general public. Our nation, along with nations around the world, began shutting down.
Within a few hours the traditional routines of our civilization were interrupted and we withdrew into isolation and solitude. Schools, factories, retail stores, restaurants, hospital waiting rooms, funeral parlors, health clinics, “non-essential” businesses, even our churches were asked to close and for weeks remained empty. Holy Week and Resurrection Sunday found all of us sitting at home watching or listening to church online. Only in recent days have we begun to hear of agreement in reopening certain parts of our economy. Even still, we are slow to reintegrate, wrestling with the possibility that we may never fully return to what was normal. What to do about camp-meeting, annual conference and youth camp are being critically considered. Yes, these have been unique and challenging moments for all people everywhere.
However, as the world spins in chaos, through it all, I have been blessed to watch the church rise like a sleeping giant to meet the challenges of this day. No, across the board it has not been easy! I have watched our pastors and laymen come to understand the value of investing in, and learning how to use new technology. It has forced us to become aggressive in innovation; awakened us to being more intentional in our financial giving; driven us outside of our walls of familiarity and comfort, and united us with others in the anointed proclamation of the gospel abroad. It has deepened and broadened the footprint of the gospel in our world! It has reminded us how important the body of Christ is. It has given us new opportunities to lead more intentionally, communicate more broadly, and invest the church more wisely in what is most effective. I believe these are the beginning of some of the greatest days in my lifetime for the local church! I know there is much uncertainty and discomfort, but this I believe; when the church becomes uncomfortable with itself, it becomes unstoppable in its effectiveness!
The most popular scripture in the Bible is Psalm 23. In this Psalm, the Hebrew wordtsal-maw’-veth is translated as “shadow of death,” or more literally, “death shadow.” The Psalmist uses this word in other Psalms to describe despair, darkness, calamity, even the very clutches of death. Job uses this word several times to describe his predicament after God had allowed Satan to destroy his family, finances and health. In the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos, we also find this Hebrew word being used to describe the very lowest, most miserable of places.
The beauty in these passages is not the absence of such horrible places. or moments in life that are best defined as “the valley of the shadow of death,” or of such a dreadful place as what exists beyond the “gates of hades,” as Jesus mentions in his conversation with Simon Peter recorded in the Gospels. At such defining moments we realize that the glory in these passages is not discovered in the absence of pandemics, pain, persecution, or even sin from our lives; but rather it is the promised glory of God’s transforming grace that again proves greater than all! While we do not wish for difficult, unsettling moments to come, we have discovered that even in the “valley of the shadow of death” we can boldly say; “I will fear no evil for Thou art with me!” In Jesus’ words with Simon Peter, He doesn’t promise there will not be intense, exhausting moments as the church confronts the “gates of hades,” but He did promise at such defining moments; “the gates of hades shall not prevail against it!”
It is true, on earth we will always face a force not friendly to the church and it has certainly taken on many faces since the beginning of time. The Scriptures constantly remind us of the presence of evil and the plight of unredeemed humanity. However, the overarching meta-narrative of Scripture is the vigilant awareness and supreme authority of God’s constant presence and redeeming grace. History also teaches us that evil is no match against grace. Darkness cannot seize the Light! Gates and walls of despair, darkness, and impending doom cannot withstand the claims of the Gospel! All who will hear and make their confession of faith, will experience glorious hope, victorious deliverance, and a transformational relationship with Christ!
This I know; the church is unstoppable! We are comforted by the promise of Jesus that in the worst of times, that even the very “gates of Hell” cannot silence the church. Instead, COVID-19 has forced the church beyond its walls, forced us to take the gospel outside our traditional parameters of comfort. We have watched the church swing to meet this challenge, armed with the authority of the Word and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Our ministers have stood nervously in front of their cameras alone in their studies and empty sanctuaries communicating the Word and preaching the gospel not just to their congregations, but to the world! What a day to be a part of the church whose mission is to spread Scriptural holiness throughout the world!
I cannot wait until we begin to gather physically again. Gathering is biblically fundamental to the activity of the church. We must not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. I pray that this has awakened us to being active beyond our sanctuary walls. I pray that there will be more of us like those of Issachar; “men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, seasoned troops, equipped for battle with all the weapons of war, to help David with singleness of purpose.” I believe God is raising up such men and women among the Bible Methodists who are capable of acknowledging and adjusting to the challenges of our day with the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ. We certainly don’t celebrate pain, rejoice in death, nor embrace isolation; but, we do celebrate a united faith in a God who through His redeemed people, works redemptively in our world no matter the crisis!