It seems like I went to bed one night as usual and woke up in a very strange and unfamiliar world. In this new world, the norms are very different. It’s reminiscent of one of those dystopian “end of the world” movies that I’ve seen, although I’m not sure which one. And yet when I venture out, to use up my daily allocation of permitted exercise, I’m transported back to childhood Sundays when the shops were mostly shut, and the roads only lightly peppered with intermittent traffic.
Now, all but the food shops are shut, all day, every day. Worst of all we have no idea how long this state of affairs might go on for. Not only are the shops closed, but all other leisure outlets have also ceased trading: clubs, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, and theatres, too. This cultural melt-down has been joined by schools and universities and all but essential workers are now on lockdown. Meetings are not convening, airlines are grounded, whole countries are closing their borders. We’ve never had a shut down like this before. It feels like war, against an enemy we cannot see. Does that remind you of scripture? Thought so. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in higher places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Actually, for Christians, there is an additional prohibition: no church. That means, no weddings, no baptisms, but we can have funerals, lots of them, as long as we offer our virtual hugs from at least six feet away! COVID-19 has got us all on the run — only we’ve got nowhere to run to. We can’t even meet together for solace in these unprecedented times. You can’t help thinking about the role and value of our church in this extraordinary period and the implications aren’t necessarily comfortable.
It feels scarily, like those “end-time” scenarios that austere, Bible-thumping evangelists used to preach about when I was a boy. Still, it strikes me that if any organization should be ready, equipped, and prepared to deal with this contingency, it should be the Seventh-day Adventist church. A church birthed in crisis. Back then, it wasn’t the shops closing down; our predecessors expected the whole world to end. Even when that fateful event didn’t transpire as predicted, the church evolved with the words of Andre Crouch’s gospel hit ringing in our ears: “any day now, we’ll be going home.”
In addition, we had a constant reminder of our temporary stay here, built into our identity. I’m not referring to our “Adventist” title which points to the end of days and the ushering in of Christ’s return. I’m thinking about those three angels — remember them? Hurtling around the world with a real sense of purpose. They may not have been a contemporary, or as aesthetically pleasing of a symbol or mark of identity as our current branding, but they surely captured what was unique about Adventism. They reminded us that this church was raised for a specific purpose: to take the gospel to the world.
Those angels, with their dynamic, forward motion, couldn’t help but suggest that our task was urgent because Christ was coming soon, and the judgment hour had begun. Three angels and three messages rooted in the call to honor and worship God at a time of judgment, to abandon the failing false religious and secular systems, even as those systems seek to destroy our freedom and compel our allegiance.
At our worst, we may have over-emphasized the “fear” and “judgment” aspects of the message leading to a legalistic interpretation of the gospel. At our best, we have introduced millions of people to a loving Savior who came not to condemn the world but to save it. Presumably, that’s why our Youth Society has the motto “The Advent message to all the world in my generation.” We’ve always known the importance of our young people being prepared to play their part in the church’s mission. That’s why we have our Pathfinders learning all those knots, camping out, and doing community service. It’s not for the badges. It’s to echo the motto of their secular counterparts, the scouts and guides, to “be prepared.”
Preparation has always been the major orientation of our organization. It was one of the reasons we used to consider ourselves a “movement” not a church. We didn’t want to encourage a settled, comfortable mentality, but rather foster a dynamic and enthusiastic enterprise, open to change in order to meet current needs. We embodied this spirit within a concept we called “present truth.” We might think of this as a specific theological and pragmatic emphasis for a particular time.
I grew up believing that the Adventist movement was created “for such a time as this.” Esther’s story was our story. Our challenge has always been to show up as she did. But how are we showing up as a church, for such a time as this? To most of our communities, we are silent and invisible at the best of times, except perhaps for a couple of hours on a Saturday when we’re a nuisance, taking up all the car parking spaces and blocking the pavement.
This crisis is an opportunity for us to shine; your caring, sharing, loving Adventist church, at your service. How can we help? Instead, what is clear is, if we do not establish relationships with our communities in the good times, they will not be looking to us to support them in times of trouble. In fact, one of the remarkable outcomes of these challenging times has been the incredible willingness of neighbors to spontaneously organize themselves and help each other.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the UK government asked for an army of 250,000 volunteers to help out with checking on neighbors, delivering food and medicines to shut-ins, and ferrying people to and from hospitals who needed the help. In less than 24 hours they had 400,000 people sign up, and 600,000 by the next day. By contrast, we make painful appeals in church for volunteers to clean the building, to take part in the annual fund-raising appeals, even just to take the Sabbath School lesson and the slow, mostly reluctant responses are embarrassing. Yet on Sabbath, we will happily sing:
“Troublesome times are here, filling men's hearts with fear
Freedom we all hold dear now is at stake
Humbling your hearts to God saves from the chastening rod
Seek the way pilgrims trod, Christian awake!”
Christian’s awake indeed! What would it mean for the church to be awake at this present time? We could take a lesson from some enlightened governments, who have acted quickly to minimize the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. Equally telling, however, are the countries, who despite the warnings, were slow to take action. The difference has been dramatic. No less than either the saving or the loss of thousands of lives. Taking action and prioritizing what needs to be done, together with appropriate resource allocation, saves lives. Our church cannot afford to be “fiddling, while Rome burns.”
Sadly, most Adventist churches are out of touch with their community. The truth is, we were never in touch with them in the first place. We are out of touch with our mission, which can only mean we are out of touch with our Savior. It makes me wonder what would Jesus be doing in this crisis with the doors of church closed? I believe he would be making a tremendous difference. Jesus knew how to mobilize the troops and make the best use of available resources.
Can’t you just see the disciples assessing the enormous group of people in need of food and panicking. They say to Jesus, “Send the people away, they’re hungry.” Jesus replies, “Let’s feed them.” The disciples respond, “We don’t have enough food to feed all these people.” Jesus asks a very practical question: “What food do we have? Ask the people to volunteer their resources.” A little while later Andrew returns and says, “One little boy has given us five small loaves and two fishes, but what is that among so many?” Jesus says, “Bring it to me.” We know what happens next. The astonishing feature of this story isn’t Jesus’ ability to feed the multitude with five loaves and two fishes; the really thought-provoking question is, where are the other volunteers with their loaves and fishes?
You surely don’t think there was only one mother in Israel that sent her boy out with a packed lunch that day? You don’t imagine that in a crowd of over 5,000 people, no one figured out this might be a long day, that there’s no McDonald’s nearby, so we’d better bring some food! No, there were hoarders then and there are hoarders today, desperate to look after themselves. Hoarders rushing to the shops to secure more than their fair allocation and hoarders in the church, too. Yet Jesus, says, “Deal your bread to the hungry, satisfy the afflicted soul, when you see the naked, cover him and bring the poor that are cast out to your house.”
After the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, can you imagine the joy and pride that one boy went home with that day? That’s exactly the same joy God wants us to have as we volunteer our loaves and fishes in this time of crisis. Your loaves and fishes are not limited to food supplies but anything you have, including your time that might be of value to someone in need.
It is so easy to think, what can I do? I don’t have much. I can’t possibly make a difference when the need is so great. But this story reminds us, not only of our Christian duty to be “our brother's keeper” but that “little becomes much in the Savior’s hands.” Remember, we are here for such a time as this and those whirling angels are not Gabriel and his mates. Those angels are the church. Those angels are me and you.
Mervyn Weir is a UK-based Marketing Consultant and Creative Communications specialist who uses the arts and media to help organizations communicate effectively. He is also a playwright and filmmaker who uses these same skills to share the gospel.
Image created by the author.
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