In the boat with Jesus through the COVID-19 storm

Posted on March 15th, 2020

by Sarah Colyn

“As long as we dwell in time, there will never be more of Him available to us than now.  Our walk with Him, our acknowledgement of Him with us, within us, while remaining fully sovereign – all this in the now – is what faith apprehends.  God is available to us; Jesus is indeed, if we are born again of His Spirit, the living Fountain within.” [1]

What does it look like to know that God is fully, really with us, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? How do we partake of that living fountain within when things around us are disruptive and disorienting? Through His multi-splendored grace, God provides transforming and redemptive practices. As we engage these practices, I am confident we will not just make it through, but will actually know the joy of God’s creative power at work in us and through us right in COVID-19’s midst.

Practicing the Presence

The relentless news cycle and growing list of changes to our daily activities can crowd our field of vision. Tuning into God’s presence is a moment-by-moment practice, and the tempter will exploit the intensity of these circumstances to pull our hearts away from awareness of Emmanuel. When we forget to stay our imaginations on Him, we slide into a sense that there is less of God available and that we’re on our own to contend with the circumstances of this virus. When we remember, we are kept in perfect peace, a truly supernatural grace!

In these days the practice of His presence may be more challenging,
like when an athlete adds heavier weights to their workout routine. A more strenuous workout leads to stronger muscles, so let us take heart. We may fail at times, but failure is part of any worthwhile practice. When we realize we’ve forgotten, that’s our chance to begin again, thanking God for His grace.

This pandemic gives us a fresh reason to endeavor to keep our eyes on the Lord.  By focusing on Him, we will remain well connected to the source of all assurance and wisdom. If at any point we shift our gaze from His face to the stormy seas, we can always repent and cry out for rescue. He stands ready to deliver us from preoccupation with the things of this world and restore to us the joy of our salvation. Let’s remember too that He has given His Spirit who lives within us. He will grant the grace we need, from the inside-out. We can partake of Christ’s own peace, courage, hope, and whatever else we need of Him, in every present moment.

Living at the Cross

The shifting landscape caused by this pandemic stirs primitive reactions in all of us. Our reactions vary — some of us are prone to inordinate fear, others to criticism and blame, others to denial, and so on. Although not sinful in themselves, some of our gut reactions arise from the old man rather than the new and can therefore easily lead us to sin. It is good to admit that we still fall under the influence of that old survivalist within, the one who can’t and won’t rest in God’s peace. If we ignore our fallibility, we will be tempted to take our subjective reactions as objective fact. When we stray from humility, we authorize our hostile, paranoid, and judgmental tendencies and will lack charity.  We will likely have the greatest difficulty with those whose primitive reactions rub ours the wrong way, and can be quick to see the old man in others while unaware that he’s rising up in us.

This struggle between our old way and Christ’s way is not one we can manage alone. Let’s kneel at the cross regularly, inviting the Spirit to search our hearts. Where He illuminates resentment or villainization of others, we can yield these grievous reactions to our crucified Lord. Where a critical or intolerant spirit is mounting in us, we can ask for grace to see as God sees and receive an infusion of agape love. Where we discern error in others’ choices, we can let this awareness move us into loving and fruitful intercession.

One way God works all things for our good is by using all things to refine us in character. The circumstances created by the pandemic may give us access to areas of woundedness or immaturity that go undetected in more comfortable times. Living at the cross allows us to humbly observe the content of our emotions and thoughts and share them with the Lord in prayer. Bringing our reactions to the cross will not only save us from sin, but will yield healing and growth as we exchange old ways of surviving for new wholeness in Christ.

Partaking of Well-Being

It is God’s desire that every person He’s created have fullness of life. Well-being is His will for us, and we serve His will when we “live loved.” We know that God’s will is not always done in this world, and suffering and deprivation touch every life. So we bear these experiences in hope when we must (more on that later), but we are not to resign ourselves to misery during this pandemic or at any time. We can ask God for inspiration on how to find joy and live creatively amidst whatever limitations the virus brings about.

We can watch our “diet” and feed our imaginations with the true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and excellent. I can’t imagine a better time to read great stories to ourselves and our loved ones. If we notice that we’re descending into a dreary and unmotivated mood, we should reach out. Some of the best sustenance comes when we give the very thing we’re needing, whether it’s offering someone our attention, extending a well-washed helping hand, or inviting a friend to a time of play or creativity.
Uncertainty is hard on us humans — we were created for unbroken relationship with an unchanging God. Because worrying thoughts can trouble us most at night, practicing good sleep hygiene is important in these unfamiliar days. I recommend these habits to honor the way God created us for restoring sleep:  keep a consistent bedtime and waking schedule; get exercise and sunlight during the day; avoid caffeine, alcohol, or large meals close to bedtime; minimize screen use before bed; make your bedroom cozy (quiet, dark, relaxing, a good temperature, and screen-free); and pray the examen or compline before bed, allowing God to clear your mind and prepare your body and soul for peaceful sleep.

If we’re developing symptoms of depression or anxiety, we should seek support early to help us stay emotionally healthy. Pastors and counselors are continuing to provide care, using technology in circumstances where face-to-face meetings are not advised. Religious posturing that erects a false front of pseudo-strength, -faith, or -joy hurts the poser and all around them. God has taken on our flesh and knows our frailty. He has walked this earth with us and has great compassion for what it’s like to live amidst viruses, economic strain, and communal anxiety. Union with Him protects us from the vice grip of pride and shame, keeping us free to cry for help to Him and to His body whenever we need it.

Practicing Prudence

The prudent person sees the reality of a situation and takes right actions that match reality. Incarnational reality means that we aren’t on our own to acquire virtue but can ask God to grow prudence in us. Prudence has two key components, comprehending and acting, and we can look to God to aid us in both. In terms of comprehending, God will guide so that we see what we need to know about the reality of our circumstances. Yes, we want to be informed, but not obsessed, and so we should seek discernment about which and how much information to consume. TV news channels make a poor companion at times like this and we need to guard against a foolish or anxious fixation on the news.

Prudence also involves readiness to act, obeying the command we understand God to be speaking, to the best we know. Christian obedience requires submission as well as courage. In cooperating with the guidance of those in leadership, or in letting go of activities and liberties for the sake of the common good, we are submitting to God and the reality He has permitted. In times like this, God also calls believers to sacrificial actions so that He can love His world through us. The prudent are free to obey promptly and courageously, confident not in themselves but in the One in whom we live, move, and have our being.

Reaching Out

The antidote to anxiety and introspection is to engage with the awesome world God has shared with us. The world, flesh, and devil may conspire to turn us in on ourselves, but there is so much lovely and amazing otherness that is untouched by COVID-19. Social distancing may change how we reach out, but doesn’t cut us off from the beauty and wonder of creation. Dirt and growing things are always good for us, and I foresee many countertop, porch-step and backyard gardens will be sprouting in the weeks ahead. Our fellow human beings are the crown of creation, and we will remain free to enjoy and be amazed by one another throughout this season. Beholding, enjoying, and blessing one another is a gift we can unwrap every day. Dr. Clyde Kilby recommended this resolution for mental health:  “I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their ‘divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic’ existence.”

In our concern for those suffering around us, many of us have a longing to “do something,” a godly urge to serve, help, and care for others. Union with Christ holds us in a collaborative posture with the Lord, saving us from doing for the sake of doing. We can quiet our activistic impulses, taking time to wait, listen, and invite the God who gave His only, beloved Son to love His world through us. We can be confident He is eager to do so, for any true desire in our hearts surely had its origin in God’s own heart. If we will offer our desires to Him, we can trust that He will open up the path before us. We will be surprised and delighted by how He involves us in His loving initiative. No doubt, many testimonies will emerge through this pandemic of God loving His world through His people, and many more acts of love and service will escape the notice of man but bring much glory to God.

Celebrating Communion

This is a good time to remember the spiritual nature of Christian fellowship. The communion of saints is an awesome reality, always true but especially meaningful during times of physical separation. When any one of us is praying, singing, or reading scriptures, ours is never a lone voice. Our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world are worshipping too, not to mention the heavenly host before the very throne of God. These days I am singing a peppy doxology while I wash my hands, and it is so lovely to know that I am joining a song being lifted by so many tongues in so many lands. Union with Christ is a real thing, and our spiritual health benefits when we contemplate our membership in His body.

Remembering that we are part of a whole fabric of relationship can also inspire us in prayer. In these days it is especially important that we pray for civic, healthcare, and Church leaders. We are called to stand in prayer alongside every person who God has placed in a position of leadership. We may never know all of what God accomplishes through our prayers, but we know that prayer is how we bear with one another and participate in God’s faithfulness to His people.  Intercessory prayer is a powerful antidote to loneliness because it shifts our attention from ourselves and engages us in real communion with God and those we are lifting to Him in prayer.

Hoping in Heaven

Incarnational reality (the good news that God is with us and within us) is no health-and-wealth gospel. To the contrary, knowing that God is with and within us enables us to hope-fully live amongst, and even suffer through, the worst realities of this fallen world. We see much of God’s goodness here in this life, but we also taste the bitter cup, and we are able to endure because we know the real prize awaits us at the end of the race. Christian hope is truly a supernatural virtue, one we need for ourselves and to have enough to share with others around us.

Let’s remember that we’re on a journey of becoming, and that our God is eager to use all of these circumstances to transform us from glory to glory. We are in the blessed season of Lent, a key time of renewal in the Christian year. In his essay Great Lent:  A School Of Repentance, Father Alexander Schmemann notes that we participate in Lent by pursuing a change of life. It seems to me that the situation created by the spread of the virus invites us more deeply into this Lenten pursuit. Here’s how Fr Schmemann describes it:

And, last but not least: there must be an effort and a decision to slow down our life, to put in as much quiet, silence, contemplation, meditation. Radio, TV, newspapers, social gatherings—all these things, however excellent and profitable in themselves, must be cut down to a real minimum. Not because they are bad, but because we have something more important to do, and it is impossible to do without a change of life, without some degree of concentration and discipline. Lent is the time when we re-evaluate our life in the light of our faith, and this requires a very real effort and discipline. Christ says that a narrow path leads to the kingdom of God and we must make our life as narrow as possible. At first the natural and selfish man in us revolts against these limitations. He wants his usual “easy life” with all its pleasures and relaxations. But once we have tasted of such spiritual effort, once we have made by it one step towards God, the reward is great! We discover a joy that cannot be compared to any other joy. We discover the reality of the spiritual world in us. We begin to understand what St. Paul meant by “the joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.” God Himself enters our soul: and it is this wonderful coming that constitutes the ultimate end of Lent:

“If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him and we will come unto him and make our abode with him.” (John 14:23)

Let us make this Lent a real Lent!

I say amen to Fr Schemann’s exhortation. And for us today I would add this, as strange as it may sound:  let us make this pandemic a fruitful pandemic. Let us press in to incarnational reality. As long as we live in this world, there will never be more of God available to us than there is right now!

[1] Leanne Payne, Real Presence (Grand Rapids, Hamewith Books, 1995), 72.
[2] Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: A School of Repentance (originally published by Department Of Religious Education Orthodox Church In America, 1970, now public domain, gutenberg.org), 14-15.

Paintings, all via Wikimedia Commons:
Jacopo Tintoretto, 1575, Christ at the Sea of Galilee
Meister der Schule von Nowgorod, 1360, Crucifixion
Rodrigo Fernández, 2015, Jesus multiplies the loaves
Jean-Paul Haag, 1906, Little gardener sniffs flowers
Sergey Vinogradov, 1938, Pilgrims