Screen grab from YouTube “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
It was supposed to be a lighthearted moment. Last Monday Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had just finished a press conference. Making light of questions regarding the coronavirus, before leaving he playfully touched all the microphones assembled in front as others laughed off-camera.
On Wednesday Gobert would be diagnosed with COVID-19. The news led to the cancellation of the NBA season. Major league baseball, soccer, and hockey would follow suit. After first saying only family and essential personnel would attend the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, March Madness was cancelled altogether.
Since then the updates have been dizzying. Headlines that had been relegated to Wuhan and Italy soon showed up in the U.S., then Georgia. In the Barkley household, Little League baseball and middle school soccer are put on hold. My daughter’s prom has been postponed, as has my son’s school trip to Washington D.C. Like so many, on Sunday we watched from our living room as our pastor’s message was beamed through Facebook Live over our TV.
My, what a crazy month the last seven days have been.
The updates come every hour, it seems. With the latest alert notification on our phones, COVID-19 once again has stolen a part of our normal to create something else. But in anxious times the Church can stand tall in caring for our neighbors. It can live out the gospel in, literally, a way none of us has seen in our lifetimes. When that is done clearly, people take notice. In the context of eternity and a message of hope, they can see things aren’t so bad.
Even before Sunday, churches have been becoming more adept at incorporating technology. Namely, they have become more proficient in live streaming worship services through social media, particularly Facebook. With additional down time, people are going to be depending even more on social media to stay connected to family and friends. Churches can provide a word of reassurance through platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
You probably didn’t hear the phrase “social distancing” very much until a few days ago. Now, it’s the standard advice when it comes to being around others in public. But that doesn’t mean we can’t pick up the phone and call a friend with whom we’ve lost contact. Better yet, call a senior adult who is among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. See if there’s a way to help provide meals for children who depend on school for breakfast and lunch.
While anxiety can be understandable, we’re not to live in fear. History gives numerous examples of the Christian Church growing during times of uncertainty.
The Cyprian Plague of 250 A.D. was one of the most gruesome (I’ll spare you the details, but remember “Outbreak”? Similar to that.). At its height the plaque claimed 5,000 people a day, and that was just in the city of Rome. Two emperors joined the dead.
Christians died alongside pagans, but historians say they exhibited no fear. Dionysius, the bishop of hard-hit Alexandria, wrote that it was a period of “unimaginable joy” for the Christians. They counted it as martyrdom. In “The Rise of Christianity,” sociologist Rodney Stark writes the following:
“Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.”
That’s the church in action, and a culture transformed.
I’m as guilty as anyone for not taking COVID-19 as serious as I should. Though I never said it, I thought of it as something “over there.” Yet here I am, rationing out hand sanitizer, suspicious of any door handle I touch, and failing miserably at keeping myself from absentmindedly touching my face. Rudy Gobert realizes it too, as last week he posted an apology for his actions on Instagram.
Early Christians were known as part of the Way. How they lived set them apart from others and made people curious about this Jesus they served. Today, like then, the culture didn’t automatically welcome their message. In fact, it was often antagonistic to it. When the Church models the gospel in times such as these, the world takes notice.
Over the coming weeks your movie intake is likely to increase. One of those may be “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” In it, the character Quicksilver is suspicious of S.H.I.E.L.D., the government agency over the Avengers. Eventually he becomes an ally of the Avengers, but isn’t completely won over by S.H.I.E.L.D. until he sees it begin rescuing the people of his native Sokovia.
His words echo what can be said in the coming days of the Church. In fact, replacing “S.H.I.E.L.D.” with “the Church” in the exchange between him and Captain America gives a pretty clear picture.
“This is [the Church]?”
“This is what [the Church] is supposed to be.”
“This is not so bad.”
Scott Barkley serves as editor of The Christian Index.