A Foretaste of Heaven
Not Doing Fine During COVID-19
About a month into COVID, I wrote “Reflections on ‘Doing Fine’ During COVID-19” for this blog series. After all, for me, the first weeks of quarantine were full—even fun. Life in the Lee Commune was good. I started 3D printing face shields for the medical community and editing videos for Sunday service. I was reading nonfiction again and enjoying talking with old friends on Zoom. My schedule was busy with Christianity Explored and the Praxis Bible reading plan. I even learned to make sourdough from Pastor/Bread Master/DnD Dungeon Lord David. Life was certainly different, but still full of grace and joy.
Yet in the larger world, all was not fine. Turmoil was simmering behind the scenes, and in May, it burst into the fore. I won’t rehash the details here (as we all lived through it), but for me, it was bewildering and disorienting. The semblance of unity the nation had to “stop the spread” quickly evaporated and gave way to factions and discord. But the most discouraging thing to me was the fracture in the Church about how to respond to COVID and the government restrictions. Because we weren’t able to see each other in the flesh, it became easier to make someone’s social media post the sum total of their personhood. Faith, hope, and love seemed in short supply.
From there, things got harder. By the end of the summer, I was done with COVID—and said so. I was done with Zoom, done with watching sermons online, done with being harangued by politics, done with trying to make sense of the government mandates, done with sorting through media bias, done with being forced to talk with people on the porch, done with the monotony of one unending day, done with being lonely, done with pretending I was fine. I was not fine. “Even in laughter the heart may be in pain, / And the end of joy may be grief” (Proverbs 14:13).
And then in August, seminary started. It was a gift from God that gave me the stability and steady truth I needed. Classes and reading were (and are) fun. (Essays are another story.) I was in a place where it is not merely acceptable, but expected and encouraged to nerd out over the Bible! But I hadn’t been in school since 2013, and having my weeknights and weekends filled with homework wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience. Slowly but surely, week by week, my world became smaller. Work, school, and church was all online, so I spent more and more hours in the same room, sitting in the same chair, staring at the same screen. Days, even weeks, would go by without me leaving the house. Without the normal cadence of Sunday ministries or midweek fellowship meetings to physically participate in, life became a blur.
I started noticing that I was slowly giving into a consumer mentality of the church. To put it more bluntly, I was becoming more self-absorbed and evaluating the ministries of the church as if they existed to serve me. I watched service because I wanted to get something out of it. I evaluated the sermon, judged the worship music, critiqued my own video editing, etc. according to the almighty, egotistical Me. In my mind, church participation was disfigured into a weekly production; the people of God were downgraded into YouTube stats; the ministry of the Spirit was strapped to a televised program.
Six months after our church stopped in-person services, it was easy for me to forget that I am not my own, but belong entirely to my Lord Jesus (Heidelberg Confession, Q1). It was easy to live as if I existed to be served, rather than to serve and lay down my life for Christ’s people (1 John 3:16). It was easy to not pray for my family, my church, my nation, my world. It was easy to backslide to being selfishly task-oriented rather than self-sacrificially Christ-oriented. It was easy to stew in futility and self-pity and grief.
But the Lord’s mercies were new every morning. Each time I grew more discouraged, He provided a much needed conversation, a sweet time of prayer, an especially impactful sermon. He did not abandon me to the abyss, and He is yet my Refuge and Strength. But, still, I was hanging by a tiny thread.
My first semester wrapped up at the end of November. I was looking forward to using my winter break spending time with people, especially those I hadn’t been able to see because of all the studying. But, right after Thanksgiving, LA County instituted the second lock-down. I became a bird locked up, starved for fellowship, frustrated and lonesome, worn and weary—and without the grace that came from school. December became my hardest month of COVID yet.
A Foretaste of Heaven
On January 2, things began to turn around. A brother from church invited me to go on a walk. As we made the hundredth turn around the neighborhood, he shared his life. He had stopped watching Sunday services online because it was simply too difficult to pay attention. He had let work consume most of his time. He was struggling, with little Bible reading, prayer, fellowship, or love.
As I heard him fight for joy in Christ, I was jolted awake. As he articulated his struggle, by faith, to walk in the Way and Word of Christ, I felt my own soul rekindled. As he confessed his sins, I saw my own sin and my wonderful Savior more clearly. As he hoped in the Lord, I too, found my hope. This was ordinary, glorious Christianity: living not for myself, but for Christ and His people. In seeking help from me, my brother gave me grace. In asking for encouragement, my brother encouraged me.
As clouds without water, fire without heat, feasting without food, so are our souls without the constant encouragement of God’s people. We are firebrands that burn better and brighter together. Together, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. We need, in the most dramatic life-or-death way possible, one another. Together, we are the living stones of the temple of God, a spiritual house, a kingdom of priests, a holy people saved as one for God’s possession (1 Peter 2:5,9-10). Together, we are the beloved Bride of the Lamb of God (Revelation 19:7), the cleansed, glorious, holy, and blameless body of Christ (Ephesians 5:26-27).
Just about a week later, this brother and I were able to attend the practice outdoor service on January 10. I’m not ashamed to admit it; I couldn’t even sing that first worship song because I was crying. The church was singing to God, but also singing for me “…with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). I’ve heard orchestral symphonies and the melodies of the wind in the trees; yet still I say that there is no sweeter sound on earth than the songs of the saints. Do you remember what that’s like? To see in front of you a brother who just lost his job, eyes closed, hands raised, singing, “It is well with my soul!” To hear a mother of three, comforting her youngest while singing, “In Christ alone, my hope is found!” To know that at least for this brief, yet glorious moment, all discord, disunity, and distress has ceased as we together again offer ourselves to God!
The Sunday worship service is a foretaste of Heaven, an aroma from on high, a shadow of the bright future that we, the people of God, will have together with Him. But until Christ returns or calls us Home, we must be of “the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (Philippians 2:2), namely the exaltation of our glorious Lord (Philippians 2:9-11). Until Christ returns or calls us home, we are, with one accord and one voice, to glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 16:6). I long for the day that we demonstrate the reality of our unity in God by gathering as one. But until that day, whether it be on this side of eternity or the other, I’ll take every foretaste I can get.
I’m pretty sure that the first outdoor worship service didn’t solve all my problems. (Last time I checked, I’m still a sinner—and a wretched one at that). But what it did do was reinvigorate some essential means of grace: worshipping with His people, receiving the preached Word, fellowshipping with brothers and sisters, walking towards heaven together. It reminded me that Jesus is indeed alive, and that I have been saved both unto Him and into a people—a purified people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:14), a covenant people among whom God will dwell forever and ever (Leviticus 26:11, Revelation 21:3), an immeasurably blessed, lavishly loved people (Ephesians 1:3-8). I love being part of the people of God! And I need that embodied reminder every single week.
On March 15, 2020, our church’s first Sunday online, Pastor Kim preached from Acts 8 and encouraged us all to remember that we are part of the grand story of God’s plan for the gospel. Kim set our minds on God above, our God who uses even sin and suffering, persecution and pandemics, to further the work of His gospel. I remember being comforted and invigorated. I am still resting in the sovereign story of God. Simultaneously, I am looking forward to how God will unfold his story. As Pastor Tim closed his sermon on 2 Corinthians 8:
I’m hurting in this season. I miss you all. This is already our third Sunday of worshipping separately, and already I’m imagining the reunion when God brings us together. I will be crying probably from the moment I get into my car to come to church to the moment I park it back in my driveway. There will be hugs, tears, I will want to sing all day, hear sermons, have small group discussions, have meals together.
I remember hearing those words and clinging onto them. But, if you’ve gone to outdoor service, you know that the Sunday for which Tim longed for has not yet come. Yes, we have cried and worshipped together, shared stories and burdens together. But the long-awaited hugging and feasting and rejoicing unhindered has not yet come. I hope it will soon. But until that day—or until that glorious, unending day—I will be forever thankful for God’s people gathered together.
Colossians 3:12–17 (NASB95)
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.