By Loren Seibold | 13 March 2020 |
Yesterday was a weird, creepy day. One cancellation after another, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warnings about the severity of the COVID-19 illness, presidents and politicians lined up at microphones to voice their self-serving concern—these happenings seemed to tumble in over one another in an existential cascade. The world contracted in around the two of us to the size of the mini-screen devices that we stared into for our news, the walls of our room the outer edges of our universe. Later in the day we went out, but the streets of this city were nearly empty, as is the hotel where we’re staying, and all the restaurants whose windows we peered into.
To add to the strangeness, normally sunny southern California has succumbed to steel gray skies and fog, interrupted by (predictable boomer reference here to Albert Hammond) Noachian deluges. I felt as though I were living in the opening scenes of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce: a great gray twilit world where people wander empty streets, frightened, snappish, moving away from one another.
Carmen and I are, at this moment, strangers in a strange land, surrounded by people who probably aren’t sick, but we have no way to know for sure. We—all the people living this dismal moment in history with us—glance up at one another furtively, as though every other human being is a walking bioweapon. I like to think of myself as an anti-follower, someone who wouldn’t have shouted “crucify him” with the rest of the crowd. But I have been infected too, not with a virus, but with worry and fear. The heaviness in my stomach originates not with an inhabiting microbe, but in my brain.
The last straw was the cancellation last night of all church services in Southern California Conference. I was scheduled to preach at one of my favorite congregations, Glendale City Church (GCC), whose pastors, Leif Lind and Todd Leonard, are heroes of mine. For a couple of months I’ve been looking forward to it. Suddenly, everything was called off.
So on Sabbath morning I preached to an empty sanctuary with a camera trained on me. Perhaps someone watched. Or maybe they watched CNN, following the bad news as it rolls in. Or they tuned in to Doug Batchelor, who might have told them that COVID-19 is a salvo in the long-rumored apocalypse. Adventist evangelists are masters at making the news into a prediction that Jesus is coming, possibly as soon as next week. It never seems to dampen their enthusiasm—or their fundraising success—when He doesn’t.
I grew up on the apocalypse—this, even though my childhood and youth happened during an unusually successful and optimistic era of American history. We thrived from the 50s through the 70s, and aside from America’s constant war-making which took a few of my generation out in a jungle in Southeast Asia, we didn’t suffer any especially big catastrophes. In order to make the impending apocalypse real, we made up a lot of stories about the pope, the Kennedy family, our Catholic neighbors, and government threats to Sabbath-keeping that never even came close to materializing. People spoke of persecution constantly, while cheerfully expanding church institutions, marrying and giving in marriage, having children, buying houses, growing businesses, getting educations and in some cases getting rich.
Still, we Adventists like to have some fears cued up and ready to employ. It’s a habit with us. Maybe being pessimistic makes us feel like we’re not being taken by surprise when the worst happens, even though the worst usually hasn’t happened.
One Facebook acquaintance is telling us that the COVID-19 threat is exaggerated in order to put an end to Sabbath worship, and that we should defy the authorities and gather in church to pray. (I’m reminded of the Black Death of the Middle Ages when fully half of Europe died, at least partially because people infected one another when they packed into churches to pray.) Some are downright angry that we’re canceling church and potlucks. One person called it a “Democratic plot,” and I didn’t ask how she got to that conclusion. Some have insisted that God will protect us if we’re faithful in worshiping on His Sabbath.
My wife observed that a lot of people seem to have missed missed health class the day they were to learn germ theory. Or they just refuse to believe it, as they refuse to believe that scientists understand the fossil record.
Another person wrote Adventist Today that it’s not COVID-19 at all, but 5G signals that are making us sick. Phone signals are sapping the oxygen from our brains. This suggests to me aluminum foil hats—though most of the stores around here are running out of staples, including aluminum foil. I may have to make do with an upside-down cooking pot.
A few of my friends are reviving their health reform beliefs, and scolding us about eating meat. This may be because, as you might have heard, COVID-19 is said by some to have come from eating bat soup—which delicacy, I’m pleased to say, I’ve not had.
Gathering in the Apocalypse
Our denomination’s reaction to the current threat has been more practical and sensible than our reaction to the imaginary threats of our past. Some church leaders did learn germ theory and the lesson of the Black Death: with all the church cancellations it’s possible that fewer American Adventists will be worshiping together tomorrow than at any time since the 19th century.
We still don’t know what will happen in Indianapolis. Our world is finally, in our own prophetic time frame, experiencing a plague of potentially Biblical proportions. This could offer unprecedented opportunities for revival this summer—assuming you could hear Elder Wilson above the coughing and sneezing and wheezing. Played correctly, the church could raise money like never before at GC2020: a team of planned giving specialists could be writing wills and trusts with old sick people laid out on cots. Theologically solid or not, there’s a sense that giving one’s money will open the windows of heaven and God will pour down blessings, one of which would be healing from disease.
But it seems to me more likely that we’re going to see giving and participation take a tumble, and it will take years for the church to recover from it.
Anyway, if it were up to me, I’d ask everyone to stay home from Indianapolis this summer. I love my world church brothers and sisters, but I’m not particularly excited about mingling with them right now.
What Will We Do With This Crisis?
Spiritualizing the COVID-19 crisis will be common among Christians. We will hear talk of Divine vengeance, to be sure. There may be calls, not unlike those in the Old Testament, to turn our hearts back to the Lord so He can save us. But I fear most of the judgments will be called down on someone else. If HIV-AIDS was judgment on homosexuals, COVID-19 will be judgment on the Chinese, or some other scapegoat. Wait for it. (Already Doug Batchelor has observed aloud that, well, after all, the Chinese have pushed out evangelists including Amazing Facts, so draw your conclusions about why this happened to them first.)
Nutty theories of the 5G and chemtrail and fluoridated water variety will abound. Prophets will spring up who will claim to have known this was going to happen all along. They may get rich.
We Adventists will eschatologize the crisis. I think you could make the argument that we are the best prepared doctrinally for a world crisis of any denomination around, if the answer to a world crisis is to tell everyone that we knew it was going to happen, we know why it’s happening, and everything is only going to get worse before God steps in to save us. I expect to hear some astonishingly creative prophetic interpretations. The last-plague passages will be brought out for inspection. Our health gurus, too, will begin to opine, some with questionable advice. (To anticipate: no, the NEWSTART principles may make you healthier in the long term, but they won’t save you from COVID-19.)
Crisis profiting is inevitable. Already some TV evangelists (though not ours, as far as I know) are selling magic healing elixirs for extortionate amounts of money—and people will buy them. But all churches and ministries will rev up the fundraising machinery, especially since not meeting together for weeks or possibly months, combined with the inevitable economic downturn, will hurt all religious institutions.
We will often be asked to pray, which is an excellent thing to do. What remains to be seen is how we pray, and whether we will pray to the exclusion of more practical measures. Among which practical measures should be taking care of ourselves, which means teaching well-intentioned helpers to help without infecting themselves. “Self-care,” says this excellent piece from Christian Century, “is not selfish.” You can’t pray away the virus any better than you could pray away the gay.
There is a theory that crises can be reframed as opportunities, and I wish some wise leaders would think about that right now. Though talked about for half a century, no one has shown much success in shuttering unnecessary judicatory offices and redirecting the money into priority ministries. We know, too, that we have too many colleges in the NAD, and that the least viable of them will inevitably close. This may be the right time to pull a few plugs. The crisis might make some of that inevitable, because everyone will be poorer by the end of 2020, except perhaps the executives of Adventist health care networks.
But having seen little of that kind of strategic thinking in the church, I don’t expect it now. I expect that, like pre-monarchy Israel, every institution will do what is right in its own eyes, and we will see painful struggles for survival of the fittest.
I come back, on this dark, strange, gray day, to prayer. I don’t think the best use of prayer is as a magic healing tool. I believe in prayer as a way of understanding and hearing God, and looking within ourselves, and so growing in the direction of who God wants us to be—which includes being not just more faithful to God, but wiser, and kinder to others.
That means, to me, two things: First, praying within God’s will—after all, “Thy [not my] will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—and then practicing the acceptance that comes with that. And second, filling one’s prayers with reflection, gratitude and listening—that is, using prayer to be with God and look within rather than (as often happens) merely to whine, and broadcast to heaven our expectations.
I would remind you, too, that as you pray with and for others, don’t preach and demand. The best prayer, as Eileen R. Campbell-Reed says is “bearing honest witness to the situation”—which may even mean facing up to the oft-neglected fact that we all will die at some point, though preferably not this summer.
If we do that, we may assemble after this is all over (and it will eventually be over) as a much more thoughtful and insightful bunch of Christians than we were before—a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.