This week, I attended a zoom seminar organised by the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) for pastors and church leaders to seek clarification with MCCY on their latest Advisory. Interestingly, most concerns raised by the church leaders are relatively logistical. My personal concern would not be when we will be entering into Phase 3 but rather how we ought to adjust and think out of the box when it is safe to return to physical worship in greater numbers. On reflection, let’s be reminded not to be like the Israelites who were confused the symbol of God’s presence with His actual presence. Israel’s plan to bring along the Ark of the Covenant for war had bordered on superstitious fetishism, if not outright idolatry. (1 Sam.4:3) We too should not box God up in a church building so much so that we subconsciously have institutionalised our faith and institutionalised the church.
Allow me to explain what I mean by an institutionalised church. Here I am referring to a church changing her identity from an ecclesia of believers empowered by faith in God into an institution organised according to the programmes of men. In institutionalised churches, few participate while the masses show their faces and try to be Christians once in a while, especially when it is time to go to church on a Sunday. At other times, such Christians live their lives any way they choose, with very little to do with God. What we understand today is that we are in church only when we are in the building or premise called by the name of the church. Church life becomes separate from our individual lives, causing some Christians to live double lives. We clothe ourselves with holiness whenever we are in a church building or attending a church function, only to return to our sinful selves when we are not in church. What this means is that we do our utmost to be godly two hours a week while the rest of the time we do as our desires dictate.
The COVID pandemic has shaken the world to its core. All that we sought as foundations for our identity — our jobs, our financial security, our physical freedom or something else — have been revealed to be false, weak and fallible. In the midst of medical and economic turmoil, many are losing their jobs, their loved ones, or simply feeling helpless and sinking into frustrations. Despite the lingering uncertainty, this pandemic silently offers us an opportunity to reflect on the spiritual impact it has on the world and our communities. Do we have the faith to take a spiritual leap forward?
Often the ordained minister/pastor plays a major role in conducting church services. However, this pandemic transfers greater responsibility to non-ordained members. Parents need to take more responsibility for the spiritual health of their children, initiating family devotion and gathering their tribe together for online worship. DGLs need to take more responsibility for the spiritual health of their members, encouraging greater accountability within their DGs as they do life together. Peers and friends can also look out for each other, being ready to show care and concern.
Public policy toward mitigation of this pandemic has turned our lives upside down. Many have been struggling to find ways to tolerate working from home, learning new routines so as to abide by safe distancing measures and incorporating home-based learning into their children’s schedules. Our sorrows run especially deep as we experience and witness the economic and emotional struggles brought about by COVID – the loss of jobs and even the loss lives. Added to these, Christians are experiencing a great suffering in their spirit as they are unable to gather physically for worship every Sunday. Some are finding it especially painful as they hunger and thirst for Holy Communion.
Amidst the suffering at different levels due to the pandemic, let’s not forget those who are continuing the frontline battle – doctors and nurses and all hospital workers who are putting their lives on the line to save others. We also remember all those who continue to leave their homes each day, endangering their own health to keep us fed and sustained with life’s essential things – grocery store staff, delivery drivers, postal workers, truck drivers, food service and supply warehouse workers, all doing their part to help us endure and survive our new normal.
Behind every dark cloud is always a silver lining. This pandemic should be no different. There is something that we can all learn and carry with us through and beyond this experience. We have come to better understand the pain and sorrow, as well as the heartbreak, of true isolation. We have experienced the frustration that comes from being stuck in our homes. We have now lived with the anguish of the loneliness that arises from not being able to enjoy the company of friends and neighbours, and not being able to be with our children or grandchildren and to feel their precious hugs and tender touch.
As Christians, we can and must emerge from this pandemic more empathetic to the reality of loneliness that many experience each day. What we now feel must serve as the spark needed to light the flame of desire to do more for those among us who suffer the inability to move beyond their homes, to create in us a burning desire to visit the sick, the homebound, the residents of nursing homes, and those whose physical disabilities cause them to remain prisoners within their homes, isolated in so many ways from the world around them.
We need to find purpose behind this dark cloud that can bring new life to the needy among us. Let us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, make ourselves available to spend time with those who feel lonely. We can and must be motivated by our own awareness of the terrible feelings of isolation and loneliness experienced during this pandemic. And let us be moved into action as we recall in the Scripture in Galatians 6:2 which tells us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.”
The truth is that this worldwide pandemic reminds us that we are a global community and requires unified societal action to combat it. The WHO Director himself said from the very beginning, “Solidarity is the key to defeating COVID-19”. The young and old need to care for each other, people with good health should care about the people with health conditions, and obviously, countries should also care for each other. The pandemic changes our lookout towards others. It forces us to be compassionate, and ‘protect people we know, but also people we do not know or even, possibly, care about’ including the elderly, the poor, and the marginalised.
In some sense, we see this COVID pandemic as the “Spiritual Battle of the 21st Century” but surely we will come back victorious; the churches and individual believers will rebound stronger in faith.
Rev Tan Cheng Huat (Non-resident missionary to SQ)
October 11, 2020