In my morning devotion the writer spoke of an occurrence that made him contemplate just how little control he had have over his life. He went on to reflect how facing a lack of sovereignty over our lives can produce either anxiety or relief. Anxiety, he said, is ‘God-forgetting.’ It comes from thinking it’s our job to figure it all out and keep things in order. Anxiety leaves our lives burdened with worry and our hearts filled with dread. The better way of dealing with an out-of-control life is to be ‘God-remembering.’ We gain relief from knowing that God is sovereign and that we don’t have to be. Our lives are under the careful control of the One who defines wisdom, power, and love. Our lives might be out of our control, but they are never out of his control.
Many of us are deeply concerned about things relating to the current public health orders. Concerns include the mandating of vaccinations, what seems to be to be an unnecessary overreach of government authority, the possibility that church workers and volunteers may not be able to fulfill their roles, the impact of vaccination passports and segregation in our church communities, and the burden on those called to administer it. So much of what we are being asked to do goes against the grain of what we are used to and value as church. At the same time, I hear the cries of those deeply concerned about the spread of the virus and want to ensure we take whatever steps are needed to protect the vulnerable.
As I reflect on my own life over the last couple of weeks, I must admit this situation has caused me considerable anxiety. The more I read things that people share with me in relation to the pandemic, the less I seem to be able to ‘figure it all out.’ The issues are emotionally charged and deeply personal. Opinion is polarized. The more I seek to understand it all, or show concern and leadership in the situation, the less I feel able to ‘keep things in order.’ There have been times when I let worry burden my life and dread fill my heart. My morning devotion was a timely reminder that I can always find relief in ‘God-remembering’ – remembering that God truly is in control, despite how I may be feeling.
I want to offer that same encouragement to you because you may have been feeling similar things, disappointment, helplessness, anger, frustration, wishing others could see the situation from the angle you see it, or struggling to relate to the views or feelings of others. We are in challenging times. I hope it is a ‘relief’ for you too to hear that it isn’t your job to ‘figure it all out’ and ‘keep things in order’ either. Your lives and parishes are also ‘under the careful control of the One who defines wisdom, power, and love.’
Anxiety can be paralysing if we allow it to be. It can make our work for the kingdom of God ineffective. It can seriously affect our health and relationships. It can divide us from our brothers and sisters in Christ at a time when we need, more than ever, to be supporting one another. It can take our eyes off, not just our callings and the people we are called to serve, but off the Sovereign Lord as well. We can spend so much time and effort focussing on pandemic measures, that we easily miss the opportunities God is still providing.
One thing has not changed, that the devil and those who do his bidding will seize every opportunity to distract and undermine the work of God’s kingdom. But he is not the only one who can find opportunity in our struggles. St Paul writes: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:15, 16).
With that Scripture in mind, I went back over various things I had read and written, with the question: How might I reframe the current situation in terms of the opportunity it presents and how I might encourage us all to ‘make the most of every opportunity.’ If we focus on things that have been taken away from us this will only increase our anxiety, but God’s sovereign rule over everything can provide ‘relief’ by helping us discern the opportunities still available to us. Here are just a few. I’ll focus first on one that is front and centre of our minds right now.
There is opportunity to worship. There has been opportunity to worship all the way thorough the pandemic. When we couldn’t meet, we moved to online platforms. When we could meet, we adapted to limited numbers, distancing, density quotients and hygiene practices. As challenging as that was, many of us continued to provide worship online.
Our pastors have been blessed, at least for the time being, with the permission to pastor our people in worship settings regardless of our vaccination status. Therefore, we are blessed with the opportunity to serve people with Word and Sacrament in a variety of settings, even if it requires extra resources and needs to be in several smaller groups instead of one large group.
I have reflected on how the church throughout its history has had to adapt to forms of ministry and worship that were uncomfortable or unusual – in times of persecution, separation, or displacement, in missional endeavours and for many other reasons. In recent decades, many of our congregations have made deliberate choices to run separate services based on people’s preference for different worship times and styles.
Some people have shared their planned approaches to worship post-lockdown with me, like holding a second service for those who do not wish to declare their vaccination status, restricting service numbers so people do not need to declare their vaccination status, holding a combination of in person and online services, or remaining totally online for a time.
There is opportunity to be Church. We can reinforce the biblical truth that the church is people, and that as church we are one body in Christ, through faith, even when situations and circumstances may physically separate or divide us. As one body in Christ, we want to keep our worship places open to all. We don’t want to segregate people or turn them away. But we can remind people that the oneness of the church and congregation exists even when it is being expressed in different, even uncomfortable ways.
There is opportunity to consider the welfare of others. This applies whether we are in favour or opposed to vaccinations and regulations. The human tendency is to think first of self. However, this matter involves a balancing of our personal freedoms with responsibility for others. The command to love one’s neighbour is often used in favour of vaccinations, but the same love must also be extended for those who do not want the vaccine, regardless of their reason for doing so. The command to love others also encompasses the command to love and serve those with whom we are in strong disagreement. Love and Christian service are never self-seeking but self-sacrificing, patterned on our Saviour’s love for us (1 Cor 13).
There is opportunity to speak the unchanging Word of God. While regulations and restrictions may seem unjust and heavy handed, we have not been prevented from receiving and proclaiming the Gospel. Nor are we being told to reject or deny the Word of Christ. Recent research has shown a renewed spiritual search in the lives of Australians. We have opportunity, even in this challenging environment, to engage in God’s mission of speaking the good news of his love in Christ to those who are searching. Our ‘evangelising’ helps people find peace, grace, and a hope that does not disappoint; a hope that does not depend on our circumstances but on the love that God pours into our hearts by his Holy Spirit (Rom 5:1-5).
There is opportunity to help people refocus their lives. Recent research has shown that COVID lockdowns have caused many people to re-prioritize their lives. God has always worked through difficult circumstances to call people to repentance and trust in him. Covid-19 has certainly rattled our sense of security in the things and pleasures of this world, proving an ideal opportunity to proclaim repentance, forgiveness, and a renewal of trust in the only thing that truly lasts forever.
There is opportunity to encourage personal spirituality. Studies across Christian denominations in Australia have shown that since covid-19 lockdowns began, more than half of churchgoers surveyed say they have taken greater responsibility for their own spiritual growth. Let’s not miss the opportunity to continue to encourage people in their spiritual growth through personal and family time in God’s Word and prayer.
There is opportunity for focussed pastoral care. During this past year we have heard reports about pastors and congregations mobilizing efforts to contact members more regularly than they had done before. Though the temptation is to neglect to contact people because we cannot do so in person, one article that I read counselled us not to use this temporary situation ‘to obviate other pastoral care engagements that occur throughout our churches. Rather, it should thrust the church deeper into the pastoral work that it is engaged with.’
There is opportunity to engage with and pray for government. While the temptation is to complain about government, we should not neglect to take our genuine concerns to them and to pray for them. Speaking to our local members of parliament alone may not seem to bring much change, but if enough people take time to do so it can make a difference. Don’t forget to tell them that you pray for them regularly and that your church also does as it worships weekly.
I don’t wish to dismiss or downplay the deep concerns and anxious thoughts that can plague us at times like this. I have shared a few of my own. The uncertainty, isolation, and stress we face can have a profound effect on our mental health, which in turn can affect our relationships with and service of others. If you or those close to you notice changes in this regard, please consult a medical professional or your pastor to discuss them. Personal, regular devotional practices can also help to anchor you to the hope and relief you have in the Sovereign Lord.
While many in the world only see a battle of humanity against a virus, we recognize there is also a spiritual battle going on, in which Christ is already the Victor. Let us be ‘God-rememberers’ – gaining relief from knowing that God is sovereign and therefore we don’t have to be.
I conclude with words from Martin Luther, reflecting on Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overcome it”:
Oh, descendants of the Word, pray and diligently cultivate God’s Word, keep the faint flame of God’s lantern alight, be vigilant and armed as we have to expect the devil at any time… and he cannot put a stop to his raging. May God help us, for we are not the ones who could preserve the church, nor could our predecessors nor our successors, for only He is the One who could and Who can – the One Who was, Who is and Who is to come and who says: “I am with you at all times until the end of the world.”
Rev. Lester Priebbenow
District Bishop, Victoria and Tasmania