A full solar eclipse

I was asked this week to share thoughts on giving leadership in response to the corona pandemic. Pastors and spiritual leaders carry a particular responsibility before God to guide churches, and society in general, with a godly response. How do we think about this crisis, and what do we do? Note that this is from a South African context in response to developments here. But it has application globally.

Biblical thinking, theology, does matter! It leads to right or wrong attitudes and practices, depending on our underlying beliefs. How do we respond to God in faith at this time, and not react in fear to the situation? We’re living in unprecedented times: a micro-virus holds the whole world to ransom, to a lockdown not seen in our life time, with all the socio-economic-political implications. It is very serious. Our lives have changed. Globally, as I write, there are 468,644 infected & 21,191 deaths (see live tally, https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/). It’s a kairos moment, a time of threat AND opportunity, of disaster AND of God’s Kingdom breaking through like we’ve not seen before. How do we maximise a ‘Kingdom response’ that is life-changing at this critical time?

Kingdom-Prophetic Perspective:  How do we think biblically about this pandemic?

‘Corona’ means crown. The scientists who, in 1968 came up with the term coronavirus, noted that the virus they were looking at under the microscope resembled a solar corona, the bright crown-like ring of gasses around the sun, visible in a solar eclipse. However, corona is not king!

Jesus is King! He is the Son that shines so bright with his crown of thorns, from his throne of the cross, that his beautiful light is blinding darkness. The darkness of human sin & sickness, suffering & death – of hell itself – that he took into his own body, to overcome evil and free humanity from its power. In his death AND resurrection, Jesus is victorious and rules over evil powers, all pandemics, all catastrophes. Not in arrogant triumphalism! But in humble compassion, because he suffered, and suffers, with and for all who suffer. Mercy is the mode and manner of his majestic reign that gives light and life to all who turn to him. This is the message we seek to live and preach, of the King to whom all other crowns (coronas) must bow, the King who is the hope of the world.  

What on earth is God doing at this time?  God is shaking all things, all the kingdoms of the earth, so that what is unshakable may emerge for all to see and receive: God’s Kingdom (Hebrews 12:26-28) in his Suffering Servant, by whose wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). The entire biblical message is simply: God is King… God will become King. While God is – and always will be – sovereign over all reality, including our lives, something serious went wrong after creation and turned against God. So, God will become King by defeating that evil rebellion, putting everything to right.

How then do we view pandemics and natural disasters?  They are due to the fall of humanity into sin and death, part of the chaotic rule of ha satan – Hebrew for the opposer of God, his purposes and his people. Humanity in Adam and Eve lost their God-given authority – their kingdom – to the devil, who is now “the god of this age who blinds the minds of those who do not believe” (2 Cor 4:4). Satan is the perpetrator of all that works against God and God’s purpose of Shalom-Good for humanity, of all created reality.

So, has God lost control?  No! God is King, sovereign over all. God has no equal opposite. Satanand his kingdom of evil spirits are created fallen beings. The Hebrew Testament shows that God can even use ha satan as an instrument/servant of judgement. It also means that no matter what evil does, God can ultimately use it to fulfil his purpose. More so, no matter what happens, God works in it for our good, for those who love him and are called as per his purpose (Romans 8:28). This requires faith to see what God is doing in each kairos moment. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8) – in all things – where God is present & active, to work with God!

What is God’s answer to corona?  The Messiah. God will become King. God becomes King in two accumulative historical steps: Jesus inaugurated God’s Kingdom 2000 years ago, in principle and power, and will consummate the Kingdom when he returns, in fullness and finality. This is to defeat and “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), and free humanity and creation into the fullness of God’s Shalom Kingdom. Paul uses three tenses for this mystery of salvation: “God has delivered us (past)… will deliver us (future)… and will continue to deliver us (present)” (2 Corinthians 1:10). Evil has been defeated at the nailed-pierced hands of Jesus, is being defeated at the prayerful hands of the Church, will be defeated at the Second Coming. In other words, we’re in a war that we cannot lose, a life and death battle with evil in all its forms, including coronavirus.

Practical-Responsible Perspective:  How do we give leadership, what do we do?

We teach our people the Kingdom has come, meaning, we engage with conviction and courage as a time of great Kingdom opportunity to work with God (listed below). We also teach that the Kingdom is yet to come, meaning, we wait in prayerful hope for God’s breakthrough, facing reality head on, being honest about where we are at, and reaching out to others in need.

Our people must avoid two extremes: an overemphasis of Kingdom now that is presumptuous and arrogant, denying reality due to “faith in the blood of Jesus”, “corona is hyped/fake news”, “we can meet, touch each other”, “we’re immune to COVID-19 because of PSALM-91”. That’s presumption, not faith. The devil tempted Jesus with this, quoting Psalm 91; but Jesus said, “don’t put God to the test” (Matthew 4:5-7). Or, an overemphasis of Kingdom not yet that is faithless and fearful, succumbing to reality in doom and gloom, escaping into “it’s judgement, it’s the end”, “hoard stacks of food and withdraw”, “save yourself”, “the rapture can happen any moment”.

Therefore, the radical middle we lead and teach our people is…

  • As citizens of heaven PRAY ceaselessly, “May your Kingdom come and defeat this pandemic… have mercy, O God.” Pray continually for miraculous breakthrough.

  • As citizens of our nation, PRAY for the President and government as they lead us in this difficult time (1 Timothy 2:1). Pray for all health workers who put their lives at risk. Pray for all who are vulnerable, sick and dying. Pray for the poor & unemployed, for business & the economy.

  • It also means supporting and upholding the government requirements of “social distancing”, sanitization and lockdown. Distribute the list of requirements during isolation to all church members, that they may be good citizens as per Titus 3:1-2, “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always be gentle to everyone.”

  • “Social distancing” is better reworded as “physical distancing AND social solidarity”. Keep bodily distance (1.5m) but socially engage via all the technological means available to us, for love and care of our families, friends and people in need.  LOVE = physical distancing + social solidarity. NB: think about what this (LOVE) means for so many poor and unemployed people living in townships, informal settlements, rural areas, for whom hand sanitization, running water, storing up food, working from home, social distancing, drawing on savings, means little or nothing. If we are willing, God will show us how we can do something to help those within reach. The Church can be the nail-pierced hands of Jesus to them – a shining witness of love.  

  • Make arrangements to pastorally care for your people through increased ‘high (tech) touch’ by video and audio calls, pastoral letters, Whatsapp groups, pastoral visits with bodily distancing, live-stream teachings, video recordings, getting food and medicine to those in need. Ask God to show you how to do church, and leadership, creatively different at this changing context.

  • Have special sensitivity for the elderly, singles, for those vulnerable to mental health issues, depression, loneliness, dysfunctional marriages and potential domestic abuse in the ‘pressure cooker’ of the home in weeks of lockdown.

  • Finally, the lockdown means we now have the space and time to do three things:

    a) Deepen our discipleship to Jesus by engaging more in spiritual practices like extended solitude, learning silence, hearing God, meditation & prayer, fasting, good spiritual reading & study, among other exercises. (My two books are available as a resource, Praying the Psalms, a 12 week program of meditative prayer in 12 psalms; and Doing Spirituality, where I discuss all 24 classic spiritual practices in the Christian tradition).

    b) Deepen our relationships with our closest others we live with, learning to listen and love, resolve differences & conflicts, play games together, read a book together, etc. The lockdown will test us and our relationships in new ways. Use it for personal and relational growth.

    c) Deepen our social solidarity with others in need – commented on above.  

God bless you with the grace and wisdom, the love and faith that you need at this difficult time to lead your people as Jesus would if he were you! I pray that over you in the Name of Jesus!      

I close with an honest, biblical, prophetic and practical quote from Martin Luther in giving advice to Lutheran pastors in a letter in 1527 when Wittenberg was overrun by the plague. When asked what he would do, this was his answer: 

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

(Luther’s Works Volume 43, pg 132, the letter “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess).

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