The Marking Event of COVID-19

by | May 28, 2020

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’
John 21:15-16

Before I begin, let me say how much I’ve missed being with you in person, and how grateful and proud I am for the ways you have carried out your ministry, so beautifully expressed in the montage of photographs of your online offerings. I know there have been stumbles and steep learning curves, but what comes through in your online ministry is your love for Christ and the people you serve.  

With this reflection, I’d like to create space to consider the COVID-19 pandemic as a marking event in our vocation as ordained persons.

We’ve all lived long enough to have experienced marking events before–the ones that we speak of as turning points whenever we tell the story of our lives. But we also know that our perspective on those events changes and evolves. Some marking events that we initially experienced as the worst thing that could have happened, turn out to have been the forerunner of great blessing, or vice-versa. Something that felt dramatically impactful as it happened might fade in significance over time, while other events that barely registered for us as they occurred loom large later on. 

We’re gathered today in the suspended season between Jesus’ Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, during which the disciples were told to wait until they were given power from on high. A part of us is waiting, too, for all manner of things, and in particular, for when the time we’re in now is behind us. Like the first disciples, we’re being prepared for what lies ahead.   

Consider these three scenarios:

When the pandemic is over, surely some parts of our lives and vocations will resume as before. We should be glad for that. Not everything needs to change as a result of an interruption. Thus as we wait, part of our work now is to cherish the memory of what we love, and live our lives in such ways that those good things can resume when this marking event has passed. In part, that’s the sentiment behind the mantra about our churches not being closed even though our buildings are. We’ve adapted to this new reality, preserving in new forms what is precious to us, so that we can come back to what we love someday. 

On the other end of the continuum are the dramatic changes that have and will occur as a result of this marking event. Some were completely unexpected, for which we had absolutely no warning. But others, if we’re honest, we saw coming. For the pandemic has simply accelerated a trend. Our lives were moving in a certain direction already–now they’re moving faster. 

Let me give you an example of a different version of trend acceleration: A man in the parish I served in Minneapolis stunned everyone around him, including me, when he made a series of dramatic life changes right after his father died. As his pastor, I was worried that he was changing too much too fast, and that he would come to regret some of the decisions he was making in the throes of grief. I realized later, however, that his father’s death was the marking event that gave him permission, or released him from a sense of obligation, freeing him to give up parts of his life that he had been longing to shed for some time, and to move toward a different horizon that had beckoned all his adult life. 

I wonder how many of the changes we’re seeing and experiencing in our congregations fall into this category of “trend accelerator.” The changes were already coming–but now they are coming faster, as we are free to let some things go and move toward horizons that Jesus has set before us. 

Finally, let me mention with appropriate awe a response to this marking event that we know theologically as sanctification, the process by which the Holy Spirit works through the circumstances of our lives to make us more Christ-like. Through sanctification we become more loving, more forgiving, and live with greater clarity of our vocation to serve Him and His Kingdom in this time and place. This is spiritual transformation at the deepest level of our being, about which we’re wise not to speak too quickly. 

In sanctification, the Holy Spirit is at work in us in ways that defy our understanding, yet also require our full participation. A door is opening and we’re invited to walk through it, but we must choose to walk through it. If you’re like me, you’ll stumble as you walk, and fall more than once. But as the Buddha once said to a disciple who worried about the number of times he fell on the path to enlightenment, “you needn’t worry, as long as you fall in the right direction.” 

The deeper transformation to which you and I are called through this marking event isn’t entirely in our hands, but is ours to accept in a posture of surrender and courage. While this is a deeply personal process, the systemic impact of our saying to it yes is incalculable, precisely because of our vocation as ones called to serve and lead in Jesus’ name. 

God didn’t cause this pandemic for our transformation. But we know that our God never wastes anything, and is able to work through everything for good. We’re blessed to be among those called to step into that stream of transforming grace, experience it for ourselves, and then listen for the ways we are specifically called to live, serve, and lead in and through this marking time. 

As you ponder the COVID-19 crisis as a marking event in your vocation, I wonder how you might respond to these three questions:

  1. In your life and ministry, how are you preserving or adapting what is good so that it might return in its fullness when the pandemic is over? 

  2. What changes in your life and ministry are happening faster as a result of the pandemic? 

  3. How are you experiencing the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying power at work in you during this marking time? How are you being transformed?  

Perhaps examples come to mind for all three questions; perhaps one, in particular, is alive for you now. Whatever your musings, offer them in prayer, and in gratitude for the gift of your vocation, even as you acknowledge to Jesus how much your vocation is asking of you now. I wonder if you might allow yourself to hear Jesus’ gratitude for your faithfulness. Remember that the same Jesus who asked Peter three times if he loved him, also assured Peter of his love. Allow yourselves to feel Jesus’ love for you, and assurance that He receives your imperfect, stumbling, efforts to love and serve him in response.