“The only way I’m going to get through this is if God is in control,” I thought to myself as I sat up uncomfortably in my hospital bed.
I was recovering from an intense bout with pneumonia that almost killed me just a few weeks earlier, and had just been told by a surgeon that when I was fully recovered I would need a massive surgery. They had found a hole between my esophagus and trachea that needed to be repaired, but also discovered my esophagus didn’t work and would need to be removed for the sake of my future health. Along with the surgery would come a recovery time of six-to-eight weeks where I would likely have to stay at home to regain my strength and learn to live with the effects of the surgery.
One of my first thoughts was that I didn’t want to miss six weeks of gathering with the church! I absolutely love gathering with the church. It is the highlight of my week.
Because of this hospital stay, for the first time in almost ten years, I already had to miss out on not just one, but now two Sunday services in a row. I missed the handshakes, the prayers, the singing, and the rejoicing over God’s Word together. I missed being part of the setup and takedown team, discussing how our weeks had been while we got ready for another Sunday of Gospel proclamation.
I was grateful to be alive, grateful for the intense times of personal worship I had been able to experience while reading and listening to the Scriptures, grateful for the visitors and the chance to be reminded of our good and gracious God by so many people from our church, but it just wasn’t the same. I so wanted to experience that Sunday gathering with the church, but I was stuck in a hospital bed, barely able to move.
However, even though I wasn’t able to be there with them, even though I didn’t get to experience what was going on, God was still at work. Jesus was still in control. In fact, it was precisely because of the situation that I was in, we ended up having the largest prayer meeting before the service that we’d ever had up to that point.
I made it back home from the hospital on February 15th, and by God’s grace, I was given the strength to preach the next day. We marvelled at the rest that can only be found in Jesus as we continued in our series going through the book of Hebrews. It was so good to be back with the church, tangibly experiencing resting in the Gospel as we praised Jesus together.
Less than 4 weeks later, we all got the news that churches were recommended to stop gathering for a short while to control the spread of COVID-19. Like most churches, we decided there is wisdom in listening to our government officials and evaluating the risks so that we can best love the weak and the vulnerable.
However, we also agreed there is much value in continuing to teach through the Scriptures. We needed a way of reminding our church of the truth of the Gospel, and our need to make time each week to be united in our love for Jesus and our devotion to worshipping him together.
Like my realization in the hospital, we would have to trust that God was in control.
So on March 15th, rather than gather in person, our church gathered together around our TVs, phones, and computers to watch a sermon we had pre-recorded earlier in the week, followed by a YouTube playlist of songs we encouraged people to sing along to at home with their families. It wasn’t ideal, but it would be better than doing nothing.
This continued on until May, when we got the news that churches would be allowed to gather again in person as long as they held to some safety guidelines as a precaution to reduce the transmission of the virus if someone were to be infected with it, unbeknownst to them.
However, for us this remained difficult, as our church doesn’t own a building, and we are at the mercy of the city and the school board from which we rent our meeting space. At the time, both the school board and the city had decided that they were not going to allow rentals for the foreseeable future.
For some in the church, they were happy to continue meeting online-only. They had gotten used to the comfort of gathering around the TV in their pyjamas on Sunday morning, followed by a Zoom call later in the week to meet up and discuss life with their Gospel Community (what we call our smaller groups).
For others, it didn’t take long before frustration kicked in. They might watch the sermon online, but Zoom fatigue had set in; and rather than looking forward to meeting with their Gospel Community, it became a chore that was more likely to be avoided than enjoyed.
We continued on with the online service for a while, until a couple from the church suggested we use their acreage to hold an outdoor service. They had more than enough space to facilitate the social distancing guidelines, and although it wasn’t perfect, it was great to have a place to meet again.
For those unable to meet in person for whatever reason, we continued offering the pre-recorded sermons and music playlists so their family could at least feel like they were part of what was going on even if they couldn’t be there.
Then finally, in the middle of June I got the call: two calls actually. The first was from my surgeon’s office. After having my surgery rescheduled a handful of times, I finally had a confirmed date – only one week away. The second call came from our contact at the City of Warman. We were told that although our usual meeting space wasn’t available, in a few short weeks we could at least use an alternate space to meet indoors.
These calls were both huge answers to prayer. I could get my surgery and move on with my recovery, and the church could once again gather in a place that felt more like things used to. Finally, things would feel more normal.
The six weeks following surgery demonstrated to me that, although I thought things were going to be more normal again, it wasn’t going to be as quick or easy as I expected. It was the same for the church.
Even though we got to gather together inside, things were still different. The guidelines, while less rigid in Saskatchewan than other parts of the country, still caused some dissension within the church. We were either being too strict or not strict enough with how we were doing things. Some people thought we were bowing down to government overreach, while others thought we were intentionally trying to put people’s lives in danger. Some days it felt that no matter what we did, or what decision we would make, it would be the wrong one.
But as we have continued to focus on the good news of the Gospel, rather than trying to just give practical reasons for why we do things the way we do, we have seen continued growth in our unity around Jesus. And that, in turn, has brought us closer together as a church, and allowed us to once again realize that the only way we can get through this is if God is in control. Thankfully he is, and he always has been.