Church buildings are closed in the United States and elsewhere. This reality is due to a dangerous virus, not an oppressive government. For now, believers cannot meet in a way that is familiar to them. Thankfully, I got to experience a physical gathering of worship with other believers one more time before the health officials put a halt to it.
Most of the typical components were there at that worship service. The songs were familiar and worshipful. The teaching was biblical, engaging, and applicable. The people talked with God, they collected an offering, and they made announcements about upcoming events. Still, it was a weird experience.
Instead of welcoming the offering plate as it approached, I avoided it. I did not wish to touch that wooden bowl. It had passed through many hands in its journey to my seat. I caught myself thinking about the disease it might have provided for me, not the sacrifice it required from me. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that emotion.
My wife and I were visitors at this church. The people were as friendly as I might find any church in the southern United States to be. Instead of handshakes and hugs, however, the greetings came in the form of smiles, waves, and elbow bumps. I usually offer my hand when I meet new people. I had to resist this instinctive reaction and force myself to keep my hand at my side. My hand was potentially dangerous; so was theirs. Touch, the thing humans usually crave, has become a thing to avoid.
THE PAIN OF SOCIAL DISTANCING
Is COVID-19 the new leprosy? No, but it’s certainly distancing us from each other. That ancient disease allowed those who had it to comfort one another with their touch because they already had the disease; it couldn’t get worse. We are living in the fear phase of this outbreak, and because we don’t fully understand the virus or how bad it may be or how many people may get it, we’re distancing ourselves out of safety and fear.
Touch normally has the power to soothe and calm. Jesus touched in almost every healing miracle He did. He was even willing to touch those whom society deemed untouchable – the diseased and the unclean.
Jesus’ touched contagious diseased skin (Mark 1:40-41) and disregarded the social and religious stigmas. The Law deemed a bleeding woman as unclean. Instead of recoiling from her touch, Jesus repaired her body and comforted her soul (Matt. 9:20-22). Jesus accepted the criticism of a political, religious, and medical authority rather than rejecting the touch of someone who had the most dreaded disease of all—sin (Luke 7:39). Jesus sometimes healed from a distance, but the examples of Him doing so are rare (Matthew 8:8). Jesus understood the connection that only touch could provide.
While health officials are touting isolation as our savior, the loneliness the comes with it is painful. Social distancing is protecting our physical health, but stealing our emotional health. Along with COVID-19, fear, distrust, and self-centeredness have driven people from the support structures which ordinarily help our society survive a crisis. We cannot allow a pandemic to drive us apart in the time we need each other most.
INSPIRATION FOR YOUR ISOLATION
Scripture commands us to care for one another (Phil. 2:4), but instead of looking out for each other, people are hoarding excessive amounts of supplies. Some are taking advantage of people’s fear to profit at the expense of human decency. How will history judge a society that treasures toilet paper more than it values its elderly neighbors?
Each day, we see the count of those infected with COVID-19 and those deceased because of it. The number of those emotionally affected by it, however, is invisible and uncounted, but equally real. To borrow God’s phrase to Abraham, “If you can count the stars in the sky, the sand in the sea, or the dust of the earth…,” Apply that same principle to a global pandemic, and we get an idea of the number of people impacted.
From the beginning, God noted the need for us to live in a community. He said, “It is not good that man should be alone.” (Gen. 2:18). That was more than an observation that Adam needed a mate. Later in history, God gave His church the ability to help meet the need for community by equipping its members with spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:11-12). These gifts show Christ’s followers how much they need each other and remind them to “Forsake not the assembling of [themselves] together.” (Hebrews 10:25)
We can lament a situation endlessly. Or, we can do something about it. Here are four steps any of us can take to ‘touch’ someone we can’t touch.
1) Use your phone. Your phone is likely covered with germs, but you cannot make someone else sick by calling them. You can, however, communicate your care and concern. Alleviate loneliness. Call. You will definitely enrich a life, and you might save one who is living in despair.
2) Join social media. People customarily use social media to communicate what is happening in their lives. That’s fine. Fear disperses, and blood-pressure decreases as grandparents see that their young descendants are still laughing and playing. Yes, include your family and friends in your experiences, but do more. Use social media to check on those you love. Ask them about their condition and dig deep if they offer trite responses. Social media is known for its fake news. Be a resource for the truth and a safe place for those who are fearful of the nonsense they read elsewhere.
3) Pray. When you regularly see people, they naturally come to mind. The opposite is also true – out of sight, out of mind. Pull out your prayer list or use your church directory as a reminder. Go through your friend list or Facebook account. Pray for all of them. You cannot be in their presence, but God can. No virus or global scenario can limit Him. Pray that God will ease their fear, increase their faith, and make His presence known.
4) Look out for your neighbor. This is especially true if your neighbor is in an especially vulnerable category—elderly, sick, or otherwise weak. Family and friends that customarily visit them and care for them cannot do that now. You can fill that void. Make sure they have food and medicine. The thing they need most might be your company. You can give it without endangering them by talking through the glass in their window.
HEADLINE: BIBLE REPORTS GOD WILL DEFY SOCIAL DISTANCING ORDERS AND CONTINUE SHOWING UP EVERYWHERE!
God cannot be contained. His presence is not diminished by disaster or difficulty …or global pandemic. God will show up even more during the most difficult times. Since the first century, the Church has flourished under oppression and difficulty. God is still here, and you have unlimited access because He hasn’t been affected by the global crisis; He’s busier than ever!
God does not work alone. We are instruments in God’s hands. Ephesians 2:10 says, “We are God’s workmanship [tools], created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared for us to do.” He will use us to help alleviate the loneliness that social distancing is causing.
While I accept the need for separation right now, I am so thankful that God did not practice societal distancing when humanity faced its greatest need—the need for a Savior. Humans brought suffering into God’s perfect world. Rather than staying aloof from the problem His creation caused, God provided the solution. He was the only One Who could. The uncontaminated God left His safe quarantine and entered our sickened world (Rom. 5:8).
The world is presently dealing with a physical problem that has a spiritual cause thousands of years old. When God told Adam and Eve to stay away from that tree, it was the first time any authority communicated danger and warned man to keep his distance (Gen. 2:17). Adam and Eve disobeyed His directive, and we are reaping the consequences today – sin, separation, and sickness, but “by His wounds, we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). We may not know who is infected with or carrying COVID-19, but we know we all have a sin sickness (Rom. 3:23); no testing necessary.
COVID-19 may have infected me without my knowledge. I understand if you’re hesitant to accept my handshake; I’m not offended. However, this is not the time to keep your distance from God. My touch might sicken your body. His touch alone can heal your soul.
A good friend came to my office earlier this week. We kept our distance. However, before he left, he said, “I’m not afraid of you,” and he stuck out his hand. I enthusiastically took it, and then our arms went around each other, and we prayed. A medical official looking on would have frowned on our embrace. We welcomed it. We’ve all been missing those hugs.
We are being conditioned to be cautious, and that’s ok; however, it leaves me wondering how we will react when the threat has passed. Will we still fear one another’s touch–hesitant to shake hands, hug, or get too close? Or will we, when it is permissible again, squeeze one another with such energy and endurance that it appears we will never let go? I think I will take the second option! I hope you will too.
Just in case, I’ve prepared a shortened sermon for that first Sunday morning when the church doors reopen. The welcoming time might go lovingly long.
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