Outbreaks & the Church

I know that the outbreak of Covid19 (Coronavirus) has been on everyone’s minds.  If you go to the stores, there’s been a run on some of the staples (and toilet paper for some reason), and many of the non-essential activities in the community have been canceled to encourage “social-distancing” to slow the speed of the virus.

How should the Church respond? This has been the pressing question your elders have been asking, but it’s not a new question. We face this question every time there is severe weather making travel to the church unsafe. We’ve faced this question when there has been an outbreak of the flu or other community crises.

This is an interesting and unique situation.  The virus spread quickly and easily, and it affects the elderly and immunity-compromised more than any other group. We are reminded to wash our hands well and often, to avoid touching our faces, and to limit interaction with others so as to not be exposed to the virus or pass it along.

Still, there are few standard responses that apply to every situation that we should remember. Like washing your hands, these are always applicable:

  1. Pray – If you are healthy, take the time to pray and give God thanks for keeping you healthy and strong.  But also remember to pray for those who are affected by the virus, those who are sick, full of anxiety, or facing financial difficulties because of loss of work.
  2. Love – Pandemics and social crises tend to bring out the worst in people. We’ve seen how this current issue has been politicized, only adding to deep divisions in our nation. We’ve also seen how there has been a run on essential needs in the stores, as people race to make themselves secure.  Let us not forget that, even in times of crisis, we are to love one another and care for each other.  Remember to put the needs of those around you before yourself, and as we’ll hear in the sermon on Sunday, to be willing to lay down your life for the sake of your brothers and sisters.
  3. Be-Sober Minded – This is one of my favorites instructions in Paul’s letter.  Basically, in today’s vernacular, Paul is saying, “Don’t lose your head.”  Don’t panic. Don’t freak out. Remember that death has no power over the Christian, and that no pandemic, no virus, no sickness, can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Trust in the Gospel truths, and let them stand as your bedrock when the rest of the world is shifting sand.
  4. Remember Who Is In Control – When the government, the press, the scientific community, and even social media get’s everything wrong and can’t seem to get their act together, this is a reminder that those who put their faith in the strength of man will be ultimately disappointed. Put your hope and truth in God, for He is still on His throne, and even this is part of His good and glorious design.

Here are some links to a couple of things I’ve read/watched, that may be encouraging for you as well:

Should Christians Be Anxious About the Coronavirus? From Todd Wagner writing for The Gospel Coalition – With the increasing coronavirus cases outside of China, many believers across the United States wonder how to respond to the increasing alarm. What would God have us do in the face of a growing international health crisis? Should our churches close their doors for fear of spreading illness? Should I take my kids out of school? Cancel travel plans? How should we help a panicked world?

How did John Calvin and the early Reformers Respond to the Plague?  This is a video from a PCA Pastor Matthew Everhard on how Calvin and the company of pastors in Geneva cared, at great cost, for those affected by the plague.

In the School of Prayer

Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1)

There is a scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which Hamlet plans to kill his uncle Claudius, but cannot because Claudius is praying, and Hamlet would not want Claudius’ soul to be cleansed and rise to heaven. Setting aside the unbiblical and misguided understanding of salvation, what has always resonated with me in this scene in Claudius’ comment after he rises from prayer. In great irony, Claudius has found no comfort in prayer, saying, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below” (III.iii.96). His prayers have been insincere, ineffective, and his soul remains unchanged in prayer.

Often have I shared this feeling when rising from prayer.  I draw near to the Lord, but feel my words have merely bounced around the room; never penetrating the roof, much less the throne room of grace. How can I be prepared for an eternity before God in His new Heaven and new Earth, when I grow weary after 15 minutes in prayer?

Spiritual disciplines require a similar approach in training as physical disciplines.  If you want to run a marathon, you start by running 1 mile. If you want to grow in prayer, then you must start praying.  Pray, seeking God’s Holy Spirit to give you the words to pray, to give you a spirit of prayer, to increase your passion for praying.  The old puritans taught, “pray until you pray.”

So I’ve decided this year to enroll myself in the school of prayer.  To sit under the teaching of God’s Word, reading and studying the prayers of scripture to increase my heart for prayer.  I’ve picked up a couple of books on prayer, and some collections of puritan prayers, and those will help – but the most important part is simply to pray.

I was reminded recently that prayer is not the work of the Church, it is the very heart of the Church. Without prayer there is no connection with God, no seeking His face, no being led by His Spirit. Without prayer, all the labors of the Church are in vain. So let us then ask the Lord to teach us to pray; and may we know the great power of prayer as it is working (James 5:16).

I’ve added here some of the bullet points from the opening chapter of D.A. Carsons, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Prioritiees from Paul and His Prayers (Baker Books, 1992, Grand Rapids, MI) Digital Copy.

  1. Much praying is not done because we do not plan to pray. We do not drift into spiritual life; we do not drift into disciplined prayer. we will not grow in prayer unless we plan to pray.
  2. Adopt practical ways to impede mental drift. Vocalize your prayers, pray over the scriptures, make prayer lists, journal your prayers – find ways to keep your mind focused on the act of prayer.
  3. At varies periods in your life, develop, if possible, a prayer partnership. Seek someone to teach you to pray, or someone you can teach. Prayer-partner relationships are as valuable for the discipline, accountability and regularity they engender as for the lessons that are shared.
  4. Choose models – but choose them well. Listen to others pray. Read books of prayer. Study their content, their breadth, their passion, their unction – but do not ape their idiom.
  5. Develop a system for prayer lists. Whatever the system, use prayer lists.
  6. Mingle praise, confession, and intercession; but when you intercede, try to tie as many request as possible to Scripture. One of the most important elements in intercession is to think through, in the light of Scripture, what it is God wants us to ask for.
  7. If you are in any form of spiritual leadership, work at your public prayers. Public prayer ought to be the overflow of one’s private praying.
  8. Pray until you pray. Pray long enough and honestly enough that you get past the feeling of formalism and unreality that attend not a little praying.