The following is a fictitious account of a pastor who tries to lead his church through a pandemic
It was supposed to be the flu. That’s what the news told me.
I was 35. I was in the prime of my life. I worked out regularly. I had the healthiest diet of anyone I knew. I’d never been sick with anything more serious than the stomach flu. I was supposed to be okay.
My name is Jim Crandell, senior pastor to a church of about 350 souls. I love my flock, and I want to serve them well. I want to be Jesus to each and every one of them. And my greatest wish, when my days here on earth are over, has always been to hear my Saviour utter those 6 precious words all children of God long to hear, “well done, good and faithful servant.”
When the lockdown first happened in my city, I didn’t know what to think. I was, admittedly, afraid. I worried for the health of my older congregants. I knew there were a few of my sheep who struggled with health issues like cancer or diabetes who would need to be careful. And I urged them, right from the beginning, to take shelter and to do whatever they needed to be safe. If they were in need of assistance, they were to call the church office and we would do what we could to be there for them.
Then my governor called for the state to shelter-in-place. I immediately called a meeting of church leaders to figure out next steps. Without a better plan in place, we decided to close our doors temporarily and wait to see what happened next.
I heard mixed reactions from our congregation. Some were sad, yet grateful to see that we were putting the health of the church community first. Others were angry with us and accused us of not trusting God enough. But there was no guidebook of what to do during a pandemic. And so we waited.
And we waited.
And we waited.
We waited for nearly three months with our doors closed.
Meanwhile, our congregation grew restless and hungry for in-person fellowship. No longer content with our live-streamed services or our video-chat coffee hours, I began to hear more and more messages from my flock demanding that the doors be opened.
I, personally, was warming to the idea of re-opening the church doors. Do you know what it does to a pastor to preach to empty pews every Sunday? It’s awful. It feels like no one is listening. I know that’s not true, because I still get emails and instant messages from people with thoughts and feedback on my messages. But it still feels that way. It is hard.
I desperately missed the energy of Sunday morning gatherings. I missed hearing the voices of 350 souls joining together in worship. I missed hugs and handshakes. I missed the aroma of coffee floating through the air from the church kitchen. I missed my church family.
Truth be told, I was also feeling convicted.
How could I claim that I trusted in God when I wasn’t putting that into practice? Push came to shove and rather than trust that God would take care of His own, I chose to follow the government’s lead and close my church doors. I chose to deprive my congregation of one another’s love and comfort at the moment they might need it most. I had chosen safety over faith. And I dared to call myself a pastor? What sort of example was I setting?
I couldn’t play it safe anymore. I believed that God was calling me to trust Him and let Him show the world what He is truly capable of when people simply rest in faith that He is a good Father who only wants to care for His children.
So, after much discussion with my other church leaders, we opened our doors.
One fine and sunny day in June, my church family was once again gathered together under one roof and worshipping together. There were tears shed and so many warm embraces shared. We had all desperately missed one another during our separation, and we all praised God that that time was finally over.
Some wore masks. Many didn’t wear masks at all, sharing my conviction that God would honor our faith and protect us all.
Oh, sure, there were naysayers. There was grumbling from a few folks. Some showed the true colors of their weak faith, arguing that we were playing with fire by re-opening our doors during a pandemic. I listened to them all. I tried my best to make them feel heard. But God had spoken, I was convinced, and He’d told me that faith means walking on water, even if we’re sure we will sink and drown.
Then it happened.
After the first two weeks, a few people got sick. I was sorry to hear of it, but I prayed for the healing that I knew God would grant them. I carried on.
Time passed and more people got sick. Two people were now in the hospital. It was concerning, but God had promised to look after His children. All would be healed in the end, I was sure of it.
Several more ended up in the hospital. One was gravely ill. I continued to encouraged my flock to cling to God’s promises.
Then three weeks ago, I developed a cough that I couldn’t shake. No matter what I did, it persisted. Over time, it worsened. My breathing became laboured.
My temperature began to spike, and it lasted for what seemed like an eternity. I couldn’t get relief. My wife took my temperature one last time: 103. The same temperature I’ve had for the last three days. It was time for me to go to the hospital.
I would never walk out again.
Not long after I was admitted, breathing had become a near impossibility. I was placed on a ventilator on hope and a prayer that it might give me some relief.
I began to despair. Where was God in all of this?
I had been faithful. I prayerfully sought God’s will every step of the way, and it brought me here to this hospital bed with tears in my eyes and lungs struggling for breath. Did I not have a enough faith? Or was this the test? God would have to see me through this darkest of valleys, right? I’ve done everything in obedience to Him.
Or so I thought.
But I was wrong.
I died at 3:12 AM this morning. I was alone. My wife was not allowed to hold my hand as I passed from this world. I was not allowed to kiss my babies goodbye.
I closed my eyes in this world and I opened them in another.
The sight that welcomed me into the new world caught me completely off guard. I was unprepared.
I found myself standing behind a crowd of people. There must have been thousands here. Hundreds of thousands. Men and women. Children and the elderly. Even young babies. Each of them with a sign on their chest saying what had led to their demise. Nearly every sign read, “COVID-19”.
The same sign that now hung on my own chest.
This was the line-up to enter Heaven.
I waited as the crowd brought me closer and closer to my Saviour and my eternal home.
I could hear Jesus greeting each person by name. I could hear him welcome them and telling them they had done well as good and faithful servants. I saw Him wipe their tears away as He ushered them into Paradise.
Finally it was my turn to meet Jesus.
The moment my eyes locked with His, I finally understood. In an instant, I saw everything with perfect clarity.
I had gotten it all so terribly wrong.
Grief overwhelmed me, and dropped me to my knees.
I hadn’t heard God at all. I heard my own desires and called them the voice of God. I played with people’s lives and I lost my own because I did not possess the humility to listen to those God had ordained to guide His people during this time. I had assumed, wrongly, that God had given me special discernment. I had assumed, wrongly, that I was entitled to protection that God had never promised.
I had failed in my job as pastor over God’s people. I had died in vain, and how many lives would be cut short because of my foolishness?
I felt as if the devastation would swallow me whole. I didn’t know how I could bear it.
Tears rained down my face, and I sobbed loudly. I didn’t even sound human as I let my grief call out from some dark and desperate place inside of me. Shame consumed me.
And then, through my storm of grief, I felt a warm hand on my shoulder.
I slowly looked up into the eyes of my Saviour. I saw no condemnation in His face. He lowered Himself to my level and sat with me as I cried.
After a few moments, I was able to put words to my despair.
“I am so sorry, Jesus. I am so sorry. I failed you and I failed my church.”
He didn’t immediately answer me, appearing to take my words in and turn them around in His own mind.
“My child,” He finally spoke. His words poured from His lips, sounding as smooth and calming as a babbling brook. “My child. Do not grieve any longer. Yes, you did wrong. Yes you paid the price for your error, and other souls will soon follow you because they chose to follow your lead. There are serious consequences to the path you chose. There is no getting out of that.”
My shame grew and swelled within me. It felt as if it were suffocating me.
“However,” He mercifully continued. “In my name, there is no condemnation. You will be with me in Paradise today.”
“Can’t I please return to my church? For five minutes? I have to warn them.” I pleaded.
“They have doctors and experts who can tell them what to do. Let them listen to them.”
“No, but they won’t! They believe as I did that they are following Your will, and they will die for their beliefs. But if I come back from the dead to warn them, they’ll have to listen to me.”
“If they will not listen to the men and women I have raised up for such a time as this, they will not listen to someone who comes back from the grave. Come now,” He helped me to my feet and wiped the tears from my eyes. “It is time for you to enter Paradise.”
“Well done, good and faithful servant,” He said to me.
Those words, the ones I’d dreamed of hearing my entire life, now seemed so bitter-sweet.
The gates of Heaven opened and as I walked through, I thought of the congregation I had left behind. I prayed for their eyes to be open and that they might have ears to hear. I prayed that they not be doomed to follow my fate.
I was still praying as the gates closed behind me and Christ turned His attention to another soul on his way to Paradise.