Article by Rosaria Butterfield
My husband, Kent, was installed as pastor of the First Reformed Church of Durham (North Carolina) in April of 2012. From the moment that Kent received the call, we started praying for opportunities to love our church neighbors. Located five blocks from a progressive, well-heeled (for now) research university and down the block from the LGBTQ community center, we met roadblocks every step of the way. We tried barbecues and block parties. Nobody came.
After eight years in this neighborhood, only two neighborhood contacts remain: National Neighbor Night Out (first Tuesday in August), where Kent and other men from our church serve as grill masters, and Reformation Day (October 31), when our church distributes treats and tracts and opens the church for respite to hundreds of weary goblins, princesses, and their parents. Even at these all-neighbor events, however, we were feeling the cool breeze.
In August, neighbors would ask if our church was LGBTQ affirming, and if not, why we were here. In October, parents would clutch the hands of their costumed-children and cross the street, directing them not to take anything from our hand or even receive our smiles. Finally, a small case of vandalism last year discouraged many of us when someone took permanent marker to a yard sign. The original sign — “Please Curb your Dog” — was defaced to “Please Curb your God.”
With sadness, as the culture lurched aggressively toward identity politics, we realized that instead of representing good news for all, our little church had become a symbol of suspicious intent.
Surprising Answer to Prayer
We continued to pray that the Lord would give our church a reason to be in this neighborhood, and that our neighbors would receive our desire to do them good. Then God answered our prayers by sending COVID-19, and with it, shelter-in laws and severe restrictions against assembling in groups for any reason.
How could COVID-19 be an answer to our prayer for opportunities to love our neighbors?
I know that this might ring wrong in our ears. After all, God is not the author or cause of sin. How could a global pandemic, a novel-virus killing machine plaguing six out of seven continents, be considered an answer to prayer? And why would anyone thank God for months of shelter-in orders, an aggressive government intervention whose deleterious economic and social harm will be felt for generations?
Let me explain.
The Next Supper
COVID-19 has profoundly (and some say permanently) changed the food chain across the globe. Here in North Carolina, this hit us like a brick in March. Big chain stores were rationing basic items, and people were in a panic. Farmers had food, but much of it was wasted because the restaurant business was shut down and the food was packaged and distributed only to restaurants.
Severe shelter-in policies discouraged people from leaving their homes at all, and all residents were encouraged to order their groceries from a delivery service. Most services had waiting lists and confusing rules. COVID-19 outbreaks in meat-packing plants made people seek a cleaner food source. This was (and is) a perfect storm. Food is a basic need, and people were (and are) panicked.
So, my 14-year-old daughter and I started working to deliver food for a farm-to-table CSA (community supported agriculture) program that we have been using for eight years. Families order curated boxes and then add meat and dairy products to those boxes as suits their needs for the week. To serve as delivery drivers, we received quick and intensive training. Delivering food in a pandemic is no small thing. Indeed, it’s holy work.
Churches in New Light
Providentially, the route that the company assigned to us is the neighborhood in which our church resides. On our first day on the job, Kent and our teenage son helped as well. It was all hands on deck for the Butterfields. That first day, it took us twelve hours to complete our deliveries.
Our neighbors received us with joy and thanks. And many of them knew us as the pastor and pastor’s wife from the church down the block. People were (and are) in a state of panic about COVID-19. And the people willing to bring them their food mean something to them. Our role as food deliverers has allowed us to be seen in a new light.
After a grueling first day, we realized that our church building could also serve the food distribution. Our church building, like others, had been unused and unopened for weeks by state demands. We offered the company the use of our church as a truck stop, and the use of our kitchen, bathrooms, and building as storage and respite for their drivers. My daughter and I learned how to clean and disinfect the building to the new COVID-19 code, and we put up signage (“This Facility Practices Social Distancing”), provided extra face masks, and opened the doors for business.
Now, on Tuesdays, our church is open, alive, and serving. Kent and our son stay at the church to help drivers with any needs, while my daughter and I deliver food to 35 (and counting) households. Neighbors who had once been suspicious are thanking us for our service. Many are asking for prayer.
“God so loves us that he appointed us to serve and share and proclaim the gospel in the thick of the crisis.”
After our deliveries are done, we often meet with concerned neighbors and try to connect people in need of food with the programs that serve food. Everyone we meet is in an existential crisis. And God so loves us that he appointed us to serve and share and proclaim the gospel in the thick of the crisis.
We come home with lists of people to pray for and serve in additional ways. In a global pandemic, where people are literally afraid to breathe, the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed gains new ground. One practical way that COVID-19 answered our prayers was that its devastation has provided a clear reason for our conservative and biblical church to be located in this progressive community. God never gets the address wrong.
Thanking God for Everything
COVID-19 also has sharpened my theological understanding of good and evil, providence and calamity, sin and repentance, belief in Christ and grace. As my brother Drew Poplin said during a virtual prayer meeting, only Christ’s own can thank God for his “sinless use of sin.” And if that’s true for sin, surely it’s also true for a pandemic. So I am committed to thanking God for his purposes in COVID-19.
God’s word shows us how this kind of prayer works. The apostle Paul says, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). And, “Be filled with the Spirit, . . . giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18–20). And, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).
Giving thanks to God for everything, including COVID-19, humbles us — deeply. It reminds us that God’s providence is perfect and our point of view flawed. Because God is good, just, and wise, all the time and in every circumstance, then COVID-19, for the Christian, must be for our good and for God’s glory.
National and Personal Idols
Giving thanks to God for COVID-19 also positions us to begin to see the world from his point of view. The pandemic destroys our idols of prosperity, breaks down the false confidence of all men, and makes us all feel unsafe in our own strength — and feeling unsafe is sensible. As John Calvin writes in his commentary on Hosea 1:5, “There is no reason why we should feel safe when God declares himself opposed to and angry with us.”
The idols that God is destroying are both national and personal. God is pointing his finger at all of our hearts. If taking away our prosperity is how God will shake us up from our national and personal sins, are we all in?
“The idols that God is destroying are both national and personal. God is pointing his finger at all of our hearts.”
Have you considered the ramifications that this June will be the first in decades without a public gay pride march? Why is this big news? First, sexual identity depends on an affirming audience who can sway others to its side, using an ideology of personal freedom and victimhood. A virtual platform draws only the faithful, denying them the oxygen that this particular fire needs.
Second, without an audience, sexual identity cannot be normalized. Here is the heart question for us. Are you praising God for this disruption? Or is it your preference to complain about gay pride (and other sins) from the air-conditioned comfort of your home, in the midst of an economy that benefits from all kinds of sin?
What Will Overcome
Giving thanks to God for COVID-19 highlights our union with Christ. It shows how union with Christ depends on the person and work of Jesus Christ in our lives and not on an affirming audience of mere men. It draws us deep into God’s means of grace, and makes us lament over the Lord’s Days that have come and gone without public worship.
Lastly, Christians publicly giving thanks to God for all things, including COVID-19, gives glory to God and gives encouragement to a world suffocating from panic and frenzy, while putting its hope and trust in itself. John writes, “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith” (1 John 5:4). COVID-19 will not overcome the world. Christ will. And we will in him.