When lockdown restrictions were eased somewhat and we could once again go to church, I remember a friend saying: “I don’t want to go, because we’ll have to wear facemasks, can’t sing, and will have to leave as soon as the service is over.”
But not so long ago, he’d said how upset he was that the church had been closed because of coronavirus, and he could no longer worship with fellow believers.
For those who haven’t been too adversely affected by COVID-19, and haven’t lost jobs or loved ones, this story does, I think, have something to say to us about accepting things as they are, making the most of what we have, and being grateful.
Perhaps we should also be thankful that things aren’t worse than they currently are, praise God for every positive thing we can find, and try to remain positive despite all the negatives. God, for those who are His, is with us (Romans 8:31-39), and it doesn’t get any better than that!
But the conversation I had with my friend got me thinking about the strange season in which we find ourselves.
The first thing that occurred to me was that, tragic though the situation undoubtedly is, large-scale plagues are nothing new. As Jesus predicts in Luke 21:11, “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places.”
There was the Antonine Plague of 165-180 AD, which killed roughly 5 million people; the Plague of Justinian (541-542), in which 30-50 million Europeans perished, and the Black Death, which, from 1346-1353, was said to have caused about 50 million deaths in Europe.
In 1665, the Great Plague of London caused the loss of 100,000 souls, while the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 caused some 50 million fatalities worldwide.
The coronavirus outbreak, which began in 2019, has so far claimed a reported 2,479,678 deaths (World Health Organisation, 24 February 2021) – a number which is significantly lower than the majority of the figures quoted above, all of which occurred in periods where the population was considerably smaller than today.
But this in no way minimises the tremendous suffering caused by the deaths of those who have passed on, or the loss of livelihoods resulting from lockdown. I’m aware too that we have no idea when the pandemic will end, and what the total number of deaths will be when it does.
Only God knows, as we look to Him to end COVID-19 or for an effective vaccine to protect us all from it.
Nick Robinson, writing in The Spectator in March 2020, didn’t get COVID, but said: “This virus may not have infected my body – but it has certainly infected my mind.”
It was a time when our WhatsApp messages initially went crazy, and we needed vast doses of equilibrium-saving attempts at humour to see us through. (Remember the Sound of Music COVID-19 parody or the Les Misérables lockdown pastiche on YouTube?)
For me, it was a time to contact friends and get to know them better, even though I had to do it through email and WhatsApp, rather than face to face.
It was also a time when I became aware of the need to take each day as it comes. In Matthew 6:11, Jesus prays: “Give us today our daily bread.” Indeed, if nothing else, the initial days of lockdown made us look to God to quite literally provide us with our daily bread – shopping locally feeling a bit like the Israelites going out each day to gather just enough manna for their needs.
I remember one supermarket having toilet rolls but no kitchen roll. “Come back in three days’ time,” they said, “we’ll have run out of loo roll, but the kitchen roll will be in.” Material goods are only transitory – ephemeral – and human life short.
Just waking up each morning and realising that we were still alive, that God’s love remained constant, and we had enough food, drink and loo roll – as well as money to pay for them! – was all we really needed.
The danger posed by coronavirus was therefore a timely reminder – whether we realised it or not – that we rely on God for our every breath. “He gives everyone life and breath and everything else,” says Paul in Acts 17:25, and Job 4:9 reminds us, “At the breath of God they perish; at the blast of His anger they are no more.”
Because God gives us breath, and can take it away in an instant, our lives are in His hands. So we need to make the most of the time we have: serving Christ, sharing the Gospel, helping others and studying God’s Word.
It also means attending church, if we are able, whenever live services resume – my reluctant friend hopefully joining us.
Gary Clayton is married to Julie, the father of Christopher (17) and Emma (14) and works for Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). To learn how MAF pilots and personnel brought PPE and coronavirus test kits to people in Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, visit www.maf-uk.org