In a dangerous and selfless act of love, two of my friends flew to the city of Cremona, which is located in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy. They volunteered to be part of Samaritan Purse's field-hospital there, in what was at the time one of the most perilous places on earth. Motivated by their love for God and in keeping with the two-thousand-year-old practice of Christians, they risked their lives to shine Christ’s light. This was no fool’s errand. While they knew there is a serious risk, they applied skills and knowledge acquired through years of university-education and ample experiences as nurses.
This presents a problem for those of us who have spent much of the COVID-19 pandemic resigned to self-isolation and social distancing. How were – how are – we to live out love at a time like this? As an apologist, my full-time job is to speak at public events. Public events ended up being “postponed” indefinitely. Who wants to help me describe feeling useless?
The world changed in a matter of days. Schools closed, church services went online, professional sports hit pause, international borders slammed shut, and almost everyone working, worked from home. We began by wondering exactly what was starting. We’re now wondering if, not how or when, it will end. Tough for us, but how much worse for our friends in Italy, Iran, China, South Korea, and the USA where the loss from the pandemic has been nothing short of catastrophic?
In response to the global changes in his time, the renowned apologist and author Francis Schaeffer asked, “How should we then live?” Before we can answer that question, we are compelled to ask, “How should we first think?” With these questions in mind, I came across an article that caught my attention written by my friend and colleague, Nathan Betts, “The Coronavirus: Choosing Love in a Time of Fear.” He wrote:
As I drove home from work yesterday, I began thinking about what it would look like to live out of love instead of fear in this moment… There is a fine line between self-care and self-absorption. From personal experience, fear asks the question, “How do I get out of here?” Love asks, “How can I be a light in this situation?”
I love Nathan’s heart behind these questions, but I confess I find it easier to ask these questions along with him than to find answers. Motivated by love we want to visit elderly people, and say hello to shut-ins, but right now we are all shut-ins, and visiting the people most vulnerable to COVID-19 could be the very thing that puts them in danger. I want to carry the love of Christ, but I may unknowingly be a carrier of the virus. How are we to live out love at a time like this? Love is a verb, and it seems that right now that the most loving action we can take is a passive one.
Hungry to probe these questions further I set up an interview with Nathan, which you can watch here.
Our context is quickly changing. When I phoned Nathan to ask if he would let me interview him on Facebook Live, it was Thursday, March 12. Sports leagues, and most churches, were still open. By the end of that day everything was canceled or placed on pause. What it looked like to love our neighbours on the Thursday versus on the Tuesday when we did the interview were profoundly different. On Thursday, March 12 I tried to make sure I wasn’t using hyperbole to describe our context. On Tuesday, March 17 I grappled to find words large enough for that same purpose.
It was an absolute gift to get to listen to and learn from Nathan Betts on our Facebook Live. One of my favourite answers he gave was to the question, “If God is good, why COVID-19?” This question formed the premise of a much larger digital event with some of our most senior apologists, namely Drs. Jo and Vince Vitale, and author Abdu Murray. I encourage you to watch their empathetic and insightful answers here: “If God, Why the Coronavirus? And Your Other Tough Questions about Faith”
Amidst the stifling situation we are all in, many are finding fresh and imaginative ways to harness digital technology to minister to others. We regularly host events for non-believers out of our office located in Toronto’s CBC Head Quarters. Capacity is around 55. In light of the need for social distancing, we hosted my talk on Facebook Live. Instead of just 55 people in downtown Toronto, we reached more than 7,000 across Canada and around the globe. I’ve been thrilled to work with my colleagues at RZIM Canada to forge the way forward in fulfilling our mission through digital innovation, and reach even more Canadians, especially skeptics. But numbers aren’t everything, and digital events cannot replace the need for in-person, human interaction. So how should we live, think, and pray about all of this?
After one of my church’s online services, a mentor of mine asked our pastor during our digital Q&A, “I want to tell a front-line doctor friend of mine that I’m praying for her, but what if she falls ill? I’m afraid that it would make God look weak.” Pastor Dan MacDonald replied, “We tend to want to stay in the shallow end of questions of faith with non-Christian friends, but our non-Christian friends have deep-end questions, especially at a time as dark as this historical moment. Don't be afraid to go to those deep, scary, and vulnerable places with our non-Christian friends.”
He is absolutely right.
There are no easy answers, but there is comfort. We can bring our lament to God and we can find comfort in His presence and in the very wounds of Jesus. Amidst the calamity that is COVID-19, there is a Saviour who has defeated death. The fact that his triumphant body bears the marks of death tells us that although Jesus is triumphant over sickness and pandemics, he still intimately understands our pain. He is Immanuel, God with us.