Against the background of the recent spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths in Jamaica, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in a press conference held February 28, announced to a beleaguered nation a raft of restrictions, including the limiting of the size of gatherings to a maximum of ten persons in places of worship, while other members of the congregation were to be confined only to online participation in these gatherings. These measures were to become effective March 1.
Two days afterwards, the country was shocked by news of the arrest of a pastor for violating these very regulations. Instead of engaging in online services, as stipulated, there were approximately fifty persons gathered in the sanctuary, none of whom, it is said, were wearing masks, or observing social distancing. This pastor, in the presence of the congregation that had only just been warned by both the police and health authorities on the need to observe the regulations, is on record as having chided her congregation, telling them that God told her no man can touch her because she is the apple of God’s eye and that most of them should stay home because they were not ready to serve God. She also told her congregation that she has no intention of facilitating online services. Evidently, this pastor sees herself, not just as being above the law, but also as being above the reach of COVID-19.
Unfortunately, instances like this are not uncommon. Such defiance of the rule of law among members of the Christian Church seems to have its roots in the misguided belief that those who profess faith in God are somehow immune to sickness and disease! Many well-meaning Christians, for instance, take passages such as Psalm 91 as offering an iron-clad guarantee that they will always be protected from harm, no matter what! Yet we continue to see the mounting statistics of people who are dying daily from COVID-19. Interestingly, many of them are committed Christians!
Revd. Daniel Hans, in his book, God on the Witness Stand, speaks of having once surveyed members of his congregation regarding their disappointments with God; times when God didn’t deliver on the things they were hoping he would. Members shared their experiences of times they had prayed for a newborn baby struggling for life, only to see that child eventually die. They spoke of times they had hoped God would step in and safeguard his people against physical harm, only to receive news of an old woman who was stabbed as she made her way to church; of times when they had interceded for drought-stricken African countries, only to see famine conditions continue to unrelentingly batter the already parched lands. Alongside these situations of disappointment Hans now places his own – he had hoped God would allow his three-year-old daughter to survive her battle with cancer, but instead he and his wife had to face the excruciating ordeal no parent ever wants to face – that of watching their innocent toddler suffer and die.
Revd. Hans points out that life is made up of unavoidable disappointments, and that if we take the time to read the Scriptures carefully, we’ll notice that together with amazing stories of people’s miraculous encounters with God, are many stories about people who cried out to God in utter desperation, while God seemed to remain silent and inactive. Hans suggests that when we remember only the spectacular feats done by God, we run the risk of becoming disillusioned, expecting that God will do something which he may have no intention of doing. While we can, and should, take all necessary steps to avoid harmful situations, our ability to safeguard ourselves from the dangers listed in Psalm 91, for example, is nonetheless extremely limited. The fundamental affirmation of Psalm 91 is that we don’t have to be fearful, not because we have been granted immunity from the perils of life, but because of God’s assurance that, no matter what, we will never be forsaken by God!
—Revd Norman O. Francis
Associate Warden and Lecturer
United Theological College of the West Indies
Norman has been an ordained minister of the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands for the past two decades. He is married to Karen and has two adult sons.