In the ongoing battle against COVID-19, most of us have discovered we have far less of many things we once had in abundance. We have less confidence, less certainty, less money, less security, and far less things to entertain us. We are going through a war, and some of the aftermath is not very pretty. Some people are still trying desperately to get through to the unemployment office to fill out forms; others are trying to figure out when to hold a memorial service for a friend or family member who died; still others are recovering from the deep emotional toll of racial animosities and mass confusion related to George Floyd’s death. All of us have been pushed to the wall and are not the same people we were five months ago when the battle began. Our challenge now is to help each other move forward, arm in arm, no longer apart, but members of a stronger community undergirded by our faith.
One of the most touching stories I have heard during this pandemic is taking place right now in Cairo, Egypt. COVID-19 has been particularly hard on countries with little government assistance for people out of work. Millions of day laborers with next to nothing worldwide are facing starvation and destitution when asked to stay home, abide by social distancing guidelines and neglect their life line of whatever employment they had in the first place. Beginning this spring, the Presbyterian Church of Egypt mobilized to send numerous church members into the streets of Cairo to help their neighbors – regardless of their religious, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds. Pastors and seminary students got down on their knees and scrubbed the floors of not only church buildings, but mosques, as well. In April and May, Egyptian Muslims were fasting and observing Ramadan with less energy in their bodies than normal. Church leaders knocked on doors of their Muslim neighbors to make sure no one was starving; they also brought much needed relief to the most vulnerable members of their own church communities. Many Muslims were surprised and deeply touched by these acts of kindness.
When with his disciples, Jesus always taught in a very matter-of-fact, straight-forward manner. So did John the Baptist who said, “If you have two tunics, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.”(Luke 3:11) Jesus later reinforced these words in response to his disciples asking how best to understand and obey John the Baptist’s exhortation to “repent, and prepare the way of the Lord.” Jesus taught that one way to repent and prepare the way for the Lord is to notice how many blessings you may have compared to people living near you who are less fortunate. These are very apt words for those of us living currently with the damage being caused by the coronavirus. The pandemic has stopped many Americans dead in our tracks, giving us an unusual opportunity to reflect on our own lives and those of our neighbors. Perhaps God is asking us to notice how many numerous blessings we have in our country compared to many struggling and destitute people spread across the world. Also, we might be noticing for the first time how many millions of people in our own country are economically disadvantaged with next to nothing in their own bank accounts, some suffering from discrimination and injustices we are now beginning to hopefully understand. Now more than ever, we need to remember our Lord’s famous words, “If you have two tunics, give one to the poor.” And, if you have some extra food, make sure your neighbor is not starving.
Generosity is a chief characteristic of the Christian life. When God fills our own souls with peace, joy and rest, we hopefully begin to accumulate and consume less entertainment from the world designed to assuage our boredom and deceivingly keep us preoccupied, happy and satisfied. Because we feel loved, forgiven and accepted by God, we hopefully begin to turn our minds from self-worry and preoccupation to the wellbeing of our neighbors and needs of those we know who might be suffering. We are reminded of the blessing of being used by God to bring peace, joy and rest into other’s lives, not just our own. God is love and we become more loving the closer we draw to him. If we are stingy and insensitive people, we are distancing ourselves from God and grieving the gift of the Holy Spirit he has given us.
After Jesus ascended into heaven, he sent his Holy Spirit to earth to live among those who were repenting and becoming his disciples. The Holy Spirit’s presence and power helped give birth to the first Christian communities, now known as the Church. Love and generosity overflowed among the believers enjoying Christian fellowship for the first time. As they worshipped Christ together with the encouragement of the Holy Spirit within them, they became more generous people, sensitive to the needs of those less fortunate around them. The second chapter of the book of Acts relates the following; “…all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshipped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity – all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people.” (Acts 2:44-47a)
In a matter of months, COVID-19 has circled the entire planet seeking to destroy what it can, and it is still on the march doing the same. The pandemic has helped remind us what little control we have over our own lives in the big picture of things, no matter how intelligent or cunning we might think we are. In addition, COVID-19 has an insidious way of exposing our weaknesses whether they be physical, mental, emotional, or economic. In one way or another, everyone has been laid bare by the coronavirus. It is stronger than our own muscle and might. Hopefully, the pandemic has reminded us how powerful God and nature really are, and how quickly our lives can change. We have been given an extraordinary opportunity to better understand the fragility of our own lives and the majesty and beauty of the one who is ultimately in control. It is our job to trust him rather than wrestle against him.
I do not know about you, but my everyday family life has changed a lot in recent months. All three of our college-aged children are home with us, taking summer school classes, working here and there with odd jobs. Their original internships and employment opportunities were cancelled. However, we are now beginning to save more money; walking or running instead of going to the workout center, watching movies in our backyard with good friends instead of going to theatres, eating at home instead of at a restaurant, cleaning every room in our house instead of asking for help, and studying classes online in place of classrooms. Life has become simpler, less cluttered, and in some ways a lot more beautiful and peaceful; all of which is causing us to ask the question, who in our neighborhoods, families and church communities is suffering with their backs against the wall because of the pandemic and how can we help them? Also, how can we continue to help our brothers and sisters who are frightened and suffering overseas as well?
Do I really need that extra tunic (shirt) in my closet? Perhaps someone else needs it a whole lot more. How about all those other entertainment items in my life – did I really need them in the first place? Perhaps God has used this pandemic to get my attention and make me take notice of all the unnecessary things in my life that have been cheap substitutes for the peace, joy and rest which comes from the gift of the Holy Spirit. Was I so preoccupied and busy with the survival and success of my own life that I forgot almost entirely about the well-being of my neighbor?
In order to remind us about the virtues of generosity, the Apostle Paul wrote these most insightful words: “I have never coveted anyone’s silver or gold or fine clothes. You know that these hands of mine have worked to supply my own needs and even the needs of those who were with me. And I have been a constant example of how you can help those in need by working hard. You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:33-35)