These are strange times.
I have thought this many times and heard it repeatedly from various church leaders I have spoken to in recent days. As a society we are faced with a challenge greater than any we have seen in my lifetime or the lifetimes of anyone close to me. Even those who lived through the last world war are saying they can’t remember any event of such dramatic societal consequence since the Blitz.
How are we to respond to this situation as Christians and, especially, as leaders of God’s people? I am not thinking here primarily of the practical questions of when to end church meetings, how to replace them with alternatives through smart use of technology or even how to conduct funerals and other special events while being wise in our following of government guidance. These are important questions for pastors and others are better positioned than I to comment on them. What I am thinking about, however, is the matters of the heart and our pastoral care for others. How can we maintain our faith and what words can we share with others in this moment?
This is the first of five daily blog posts and video messages from Living Leadership for church leaders in these times. Over the next few days we want to encourage you to speak hope, share help, support shepherds and stay centred. But, first, some reflections on our perspective in these strange times.
The situation we find ourselves in is a potentially toxic cocktail of factors: fear for personal health; concern for the well-being of elderly and vulnerable friends and relatives; worries about financial security for all of us and especially for those who are self-employed or employers of others; anxiety about the implications for education and exams if schools are closed; the fear of dying alone or knowing that one’s loved one may die alone without us by their side. We need to know what we believe and to think about how to communicate it to others in such times.
In some ways, this moment is bringing us abruptly back to a situation that has been the ‘norm’ for many people throughout history and remains the ‘norm’ for people in less developed countries even today. The illusion of stability and security on the basis of progress and economic growth has been shaken before in recent years – the financial crash and the environmental crisis are the foremost reasons – but not on this scale or with this rapidity. This is a moment of awakening for many to the fragility of life and the uncertainty of our economic and political systems. I do not mean to be a prophet of doom and gloom in saying that, but I think it is important that whilst we look for solutions to these issues – and Christians can be at the forefront of finding creative responses to economic and social hardship – we do not allow ourselves to be swept up in the belief that these issues will ultimately be solved through our efforts. The lies that echo through the ages ring out in this moment. The now-exposed lie of Sodom that says we can live forever in prosperity and pleasure and the still not fully exposed lie of Babel that says we can build our way to Heaven through our combined efforts without God are no less seductive in this moment than the lie that we are all doomed.
In place of these deceptions, we need a clear understanding of biblical truth. My mind is drawn to the book of Daniel with its emphasis on the sovereign rule of God. The insights Daniel is given in visions, confusing and overwhelming as they may feel, tell us the true story of human history. Rising powers, collapsing civilisations, declarations of great strength and demonstrations of great weakness are all part of the dynamic of history. Yet Daniel is given a glimpse into two truths. Firstly, that behind these twists and turns of history is a constant and unchanging truth, that God is sovereign. There is conflict in the heavenly realms as powers of evil seek to thwart God’s good purpose, but there is no question that He remains in control. Secondly, his purpose is to bring all things to a very good conclusion when all authority is handed over to one who is described as being 'like a Son of Man'. That One, who once walked the dusty streets of Judea and Galilee, has already been enthroned at His Father’s right hand and will soon return to establish His kingdom in its fullness. The One who did battle against disease during His life on earth – presumably viruses were on his list of conquered enemies – and who won the decisive victory over sin and death through His cross and resurrection, will soon call an end to all hostilities, destroying every foe by the breath of his mouth.
These truths frame our lives in this uncertain world. We have a living hope of a certain inheritance through the resurrection of Christ from the dead and we are kept by the power of God. We also trust that God is working out His purpose through all things for our good, bringing history towards the goal of His children being revealed in glory. This confidence frees us to devote ourselves to God’s service. We are called to be gospel people, sharing the message of Christ with others and serving them through good works in response to God’s grace. As our culture faces a moment of existential crisis we must do both of these things. We must speak hope and show help.
In tomorrow's post we will think about the first of those duties - speaking hope.
Strange Times – top tips
· We are living in a challenging moment of fears about health and economic uncertainties which presents challenges and opportunities for the Church.
· We need to think not just of practical ways to replace cancelled services, but also of how we can respond by speaking hope and showing help in Christ’s name.
· We can have confidence in God’s providence in this time – Daniel is a wonderful reminder of His outworking of His sovereign purposes through history.