Social distancing in Jesus’ name

Let me be clear from the get-go: Social distancing isn’t suffering. There, I said it.

Surely, like a veteran burglar roaming about under the cover of darkness, COVID-19 snuck up on nearly everybody, whether or not there are valid arguments to be made that our government officials and elected leaders should have been better prepared and that the rest of us should have been informed sooner, more accurately and with greater urgency. Even so, when most any kind of tragedy or crisis besieges our precious 24-hour news cycle, if it doesn’t appear likely to impact my bottom-line, harming people I know or investment accounts I treasure, my attention quickly wanes. Maybe we share this embarrassing trait.

By now, however, we have a much fuller picture of the challenge staring into the whites of our eyes – a full-on global pandemic, rife with the constant minutia of new cases and their adverse impact everywhere imaginable. Although unequally, of course, given the ways of the world, it is safe to say that virtually no one will escape the novel coronavirus unscathed. Some experts have been telling us for weeks that the situation will get worse before it gets better.

My heart goes out for the exponential loss of life that may be ahead, in the United States and worldwide, even if we hold out hope that COVID-19 won’t turn out to be as deadly as SARS or smallpox. For now, it isn’t the 14th century’s bubonic plague, thank the Lord.

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Even so, I am perplexed at how some Christians are handling themselves. Many of us appear to be coming apart at the seams, which makes me wonder if we were that together in the first place.

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When municipalities began encouraging social distancing of at least six feet and capping attendance numbers for public gatherings, alongside other decisions of closure or limitation, many churches quickly turned to congregant-free video broadcasting of worship services or even drive-in-movie style worship in their parking lots. Other congregations – to the chagrin of many, both Christian and not – continued meeting in-person as scheduled, emphatic that they were simply going to trust God.

“My goodness gracious, if the people of God cannot display wisdom, resilience and calm, then who will?”

For me, the theological problem here is imagining that we are in some way doing God a favor when gathering face-to-face in Jesus’ name, as we normally do, for worship, Bible study and discipleship groups. Something is hugely awry when for the public good (which includes our congregations since they, too, work and live “in public”) and over a temporary period, postponing physical gatherings jars us so. It is as if we believe a mystical, magic medicine is produced through our corporate worship or that God isn’t the infinitely capable caretaker that Scripture attests, which renders, then, 10 or 11 o’clock Sunday mornings as the only time that heaven is open for business.

Frankly, it makes us, as Christians, look seriously out to lunch (to put it kindly). Believe me, I understand that cognitive dissonance during trying times is very real. We may feel like we are living in a movie because what is real still doesn’t feel that it should be. We can’t see the forest for the trees. I get it. But this is no time for civil disobedience, but rather for us to turn with confidence to the God we say we believe in.

The truth is that not all fear is created equal. My wife is crazily afraid of cats; lions and leopards not so much, but a domestic feline sends her into a tailspin. On countless occasions, with no shame, she has pushed me aside and run in the opposite direction upon the approach of even a kitten. Anyone who knows her well knows of her fear of cats.

When crossing an intersection, however, we all know to look both ways and proceed with caution, partly because we fear being struck by a vehicle. None of us is in the habit of handing over our credit cards to strangers. And why? Because we fear what they would do with them. Then, too, we are told in Scripture on several occasions to “fear not,” that God is with us, to strengthen, help, and uphold us (Isaiah 41:10). So, we may find ourselves asking, “Which one is it? Am I to fear or not fear?” Again, not all fear is created equal.

Our fear pertaining to God isn’t about God being a divine bully in the sky. It is, however, about awe-filled reverence and might, that God is our covenantal Lord with thoughts that are not our thoughts and ways that are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). The real kicker, though, is that in Christ we haven’t been given a “spirit of fear” (2 Timothy 1:7). Instead, we have been gifted power, love, and self-discipline.

Certainly, we ought not to be automatons who literally never fear anything. Rather, it is that by resting in God’s abilities that we refuse to ever raise a white flag in surrender to fear. In facing COVID-19, it may look or feel like God isn’t moving, and yet God isn’t asleep on the job. We do well to remember what was written in the year 325 at The First Council of Nicaea:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

I came across the following quote on social media last week: “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being called to sit on a couch. You can do this.”

Christians can be a ruthlessly self-serving, frazzled, insular lot, plagued by doing what we shouldn’t and not doing what we should (Romans 7:15-20). Not only that, the beloved community we speak of is sometimes more of a plastic idol than we will admit. But someone needs to stop babying us and be clear that the mere inconvenience of social distancing isn’t akin to suffering.

Irrespective of how COVID-19 ultimately unfolds, Christians should be the biggest ambassadors of faith, hope and love in its midst, on account that we are resident aliens on borrowed, blood-bought time down here anyhow. If not, then our Sunday worship is for us and not the Lord. My goodness gracious, if the people of God cannot display wisdom, resilience and calm, then who will? In choosing what is better (Luke 10:38-42), let’s stop being an insecure people committed to activity that is less than healthy, helpful or holy.

“Someone needs to stop babying us and be clear that the mere inconvenience of social distancing isn’t akin to suffering.”

Each of us should live, responsibly, as one who believes. As a contrarian busybody, stop whining about social distancing, and just obey warnings and instructions issued for the common good. Besides, we all could use some good hula-hooping personal space. Let’s also model for our society what it looks like to faithfully employ the benefits of technology during such a time. I am reminded of Lorraine Hansberry’s educational insight that we should “Never be afraid to sit a while and think.”

In Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller offered this sobering point: “You don’t really know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” Social distancing is an opportunity that I hope we take advantage of to think seriously about what matters most.

May we be anxious for nothing and resolute in sober-mindedness as we do all we can, but also trust God to do for us what we simply cannot do for ourselves.

EDITOR’S NOTE: BNG is committed to providing timely and helpful news and commentary about ways Christians and churches are responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Look for the hashtag #intimeslikethese. You can also use this form to help us identify compelling stories of faith and ministry in these challenging times.

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