‘Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ Revelation 2:7
I’ve spent almost 3 weeks in isolation in Cape Town under some of the strictest rules any nation has yet issued. The photograph above is a copy of the government guidelines – a free insert in the local paper. Here the roads are patrolled by police and military, we have been allowed out for food and pharmacy visits only, and sales of alcohol and cigarettes have been banned. There is no allowance for going outside for either exercise or dog walking. The curve has been not only flattened but effectively been squished… for now.
It’s actually been very peaceful. Since I’m used to working from home, my routine hasn’t been impacted as much as it has for some. That said, I’ve been hugely grateful for a balcony so that I can enjoy both fresh air and one of the best views I know. I shall miss it sorely when we leave for England. However, I’m also sorry to have missed a planned trip to Johannesburg, walking along the beach (or anywhere really), the buzz of seeing friends, or driving out to explore the locale at weekends. I’m so grateful for the wonder of Skype, FaceTime & WhatsApp, but seeing my children on their own over Easter was a wrench.
I imagine the long weekend looked significantly different for most families this year, whether it was a celebration of chocolate or faith.
I am convinced that one or the best things to come out of this world-wide lockdown is the banning of congregating and the subsequent closure of church buildings. Really? Absolutely. For much of the Jesus-following world this has been the way of things for many, many years. Buildings are confiscated by governments hostile to the Christian faith; meetings are banned, services declared illegal and believers prosecuted, imprisoned, tortured and killed. In the West, the church scene tends to be dominated by huge meetings, charismatic (in personality of not in Spirit) speakers, professional musicians and services which could be mistaken for finding their inspiration from the world of entertainment. A strange pseudo ‘celebrity’ culture has been allowed to grow, accompanied by big bands, flashing lights, thumping bass, smoke machines and lighting rigs on a scale to vie with concert halls. It doesn’t quite line up for me with that itinerant carpenter from Nazareth who ‘made himself of no reputation’ (Philippians 2:7).
That the church community has been evicted from its four walls will, I believe, prove to be a blessing, if still heavily disguised for some. Instead of meetings where people don’t actually meet, instead of the business or school model of church, and instead of being spoon-fed teaching or self-help from a pulpit, we are suddenly and forcefully compelled to either wither and die in our faith, or to grasp the truths of the Bible and allow them to become realities in our lives. Without the relentless programme of activities, it’s a golden opportunity for the people of God, not to throw up their hands in horror and dismay, but to nurture their relationship with God for themselves: to read the Bible more closely, to pray and have conversations with God that allow us to express the deepest longings and desires of our hearts – the good, the bad and the ugly – and to get to grips with some of those ‘one anothers’ scattered through the New Testament (all at a socially acceptable distance of course). We can get down and dirty with God in a nitty-gritty, sleeves rolled up, no-holds-barred kind of way which may allow a cleansing and refreshing breath of life into our faith. We can ask ourselves difficult questions: ‘On what is my faith based?’; ‘Dare I believe that Jesus is everything He says He is?’; ‘Do I have head knowledge or heart-knowledge of the things of God?’; even, ‘What am I doing with my life?’
No longer can we depend on someone else to prop us up and coddle us; we will have to depend on God each day. That’s not a hardship; that’s not a trial. It’s the perfect time to embrace and grow up into a more mature faith. It’s also the original blueprint for a life lived in God’s company – walking and talking with Him. If it’s uncomfortable, even unpleasant or demanding at times, then we can take heart from Jesus Himself, who said: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Jesus wasn’t kidding – there’s not one of us who hasn’t faced trouble. “But…” – there’s the next phrase to explore, lean into and lay hold of for yourself.
I recently expressed some of these thoughts in writing and was rebuked for criticising the church. The rebuker unfortunately misunderstood my message which I was (happily) able to articulate more clearly (I hope). In the book of Revelation you can read seven letters to seven churches written by Jesus, and entrusted to His friend John, which definitely don’t hold back in pointing out that some things need to change. Jesus was not motivated by criticism, anger or irritation, but by a passionate, relentless love for His metaphorical ‘Bride’ (as he refers to The Church) that cannot be measured. He is looking for authentic faith which means hard questions sometimes need to be asked.
Those letters also remind me of the lengths a good Father is prepared to go to on behalf of the children who He cherishes. The Corona virus, despite its hideousness, reminds me of exactly the same thing.
Now, as we know, nothing changes if nothing changes. Right now everything has changed. What looks like an obstacle might actually turn out to be a door of opportunity. We may well look back and see that in spite of the challenges and very real losses of this season, for the people of God it has been a very good thing as they are truly unleashed on the world – going out rather than staying inside those walls. Finally!
‘No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light.’ Luke 11:33