Discipleship in the Time of Coronavirus

Under threat, scarcity, and stress human persons understandably become self-protective. We turn inward. And yet, the demands of these days call us outward. What is the way of Jesus in such a time as this? Steve Porter

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What unsettling times. For anyone who felt that the world was now immune to plagues of Biblical proportions, circa 1929-style stock market crashes, and almost empty LA freeways, the past few weeks have provided an unwanted shot of reality.
Such ominous times tend to bring out the worst and best in humanity. I’ve witnessed a CVS clerk plead with a customer to think of others and not to buy three shopping carts full of hand sanitizer that the store had placed on sale. I’ve gone more than a week without seeing a roll of toilet paper on a grocery store shelf. But I have also heard stories of other-centered compassion and seen acts of great bravery that have brought tears to my eyes and warm waves of inspiration.
Steve Porter, a philosopher-theologian and one of only 31 PhD students of Dallas Willard has written a beautiful essay, titled, Discipleship in the Time of Coronavirus. It is a poignant reminder that while we need to love our neighbors from six feet away, the proximity of Jesus remains unchanged.

Discipleship in the Time of Coronavirus

“ Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus…” (Phil 2:4–5).

Under threat, scarcity, and stress human persons understandably become self-protective. We turn inward. And yet, the demands of these days call us outward. The needs of those around us—whether children, aged parents, neighbors, spouse, those who are sick—require our time and energy. This puts us in a bind. We want or need to move outward in love to others, especially those in greatest need, but our own internal resources feel strained and thin. What is the way of Jesus in such a time as this?

First, we must remember that we are disciples of the living, ascended, and enthroned Jesus. When Jesus called his disciples to go and make disciples, they did not make disciples (that is, students/learners) of themselves. Rather, Jesus called them to announce the availability of an ongoing discipleship relationship with himself. Every Christian is currently in an intensive, interactive, discipleship relationship with the person of Jesus, and that school of discipleship is always in session. The Jesus who said, “And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” remains/abides with us by his Spirit. When we are tempted to isolate and turn inwards, we need to repeatedly turn our gaze to the availability of Jesus. Throughout our days we need to develop the habit—now more than ever—of finding encouragement and comfort in the real presence of Christ’s love (Phil 2:1).

The author of Hebrews writes, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who…has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:1–2). The Apostle Paul urges the same orientation of mind, “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3:1). We are exhorted to fix our mind’s eye on King Jesus, who is seated in a position of rest, power, and all authority. Jesus is not pacing back and forth, wringing his hands, and wondering what to do. Our Lord, savior, friend, and lover is paying attention to us, the human situation, our needs, and the needs of those around the world. We need to pay attention to him—fixing our eyes, setting our minds, abiding—while we attend to the news, our needs, and the needs of those around us.

I have been consistently struck by this quote from W. H. Auden, “Choice of attention—to pay attention to this and ignore that—is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences. As Ortega y Gasset said: ‘Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are.’” More than anything or anyone else, disciples of Jesus pay attention to the one who pays attention to them.

Returning one’s gaze to the competent gaze of Jesus throughout one’s day is not simply a nice idea. Discipleship to Jesus is a learning way (Matt 11:28–30). With Jesus’ leading and the aid of his people down through the ages, we make tangible plans to reorient our minds to Christ and his Father’s kingdom resources in the midst of daily life.

One practice to consider is turning our palms upward at various times and praying with the Canaanite woman, “Lord, help me” (Matt 15:25) or with blind Bartimaeus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mk 10:47). Or we might consider meditatively praying the Lord’s Prayer morning, noon, and evening. The stanza “Give us this day our daily bread” will seem more relevant than ever. I was once encouraged to give three breaths to the Lord—a holy pause—each time I sit down to answer email. “I give you the next three breaths, Lord.” Perhaps as we take in news updates, we could imagine presenting the need or concern to Christ seated at the right hand of the Father. Additionally, short prayers of lament can aid us in bringing our loss, anger, and confusion to God: “How long, O Lord?” (Ps 13:2), “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?” (Ps 10:1), “Why do you sleep, O Lord?” (Ps 44:23), “Come quickly, Lord, to help me” (Ps 40:13), “Lord, have mercy on us,” (Matt 20:21), and “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt 26:39). These are not practices that are meant to take us out of the moment. Instead, they are practices that allow us to remain in the moment in a faithful, redemptive, life-giving way.

A second essential element of discipleship to Jesus that must be remembered always and especially in these times is that disciples of Jesus never minister alone. As Mark’s gospel records, “And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two” (Mk 6:7). The one time the Gospels record a disciple doing something alone is when Judas goes to betray Jesus. The point is a much broader one and is summed up in this, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Particularly in times when we are tempted to turn inward, we must intentionally engage practices of Christian friendship and community. Our sisters and brothers in Christ are essential for our spiritual health and growth. We will not make it without them and we will certainly not serve others consistently or well without them. In the best of times we appear to do alright in independence and autonomy, but we are only fooling ourselves. The busyness and distraction of “normal times” keeps hidden our desperate need for spiritual family and the dire consequences of loneliness. Again, the writer of Hebrews: “Let us not neglect meeting together, as some have made a habit, but let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:25).

What do practices of “meeting together” look like in the time of coronavirus? Of course, follow all the mandates and recommendations of your local health authorities given your age and health status. As you social distance, shelter in place, and quarantine, do not give in to the inner pull to withdraw emotionally. Allow yourself, as best you can, to feel the loss of community, the sadness of not meeting in person, the ache of loneliness. And with those vulnerable feelings, communicate your longing and pain to those you miss. Whether by letter, phone, text, or video, let those close to you—or those you realize are closer than you thought—know that their connection is a significant part of your life. Perhaps you can make a card, write a poem, or simply send a text message that expresses your heart for connection. That expression of relational need will itself be life-giving and will, Lord willing, be received and returned. As Paul says, “For I long to see you…that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Rom 1:11–12). Paul expresses his longing for mutual connection and there is mutual encouragement even in his expression of that desire.

Then, in ways that are appropriate to your level of social distancing, spend time with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Would it be safe and appropriate to walk six feet apart around the block? Could you meet at a local park or nature center for a conversation at either end of a picnic table? Could you walk by a friends’ house and have a conversation from porch to sidewalk? Of course there is always phone, text, and online connection. And for those of us blessed to be sheltered with family or roommates, now is the time to take the next step in drawing near to one another in Christ Jesus. In various ways, “Let us not neglect meeting together….” Our ongoing discipleship to Jesus depends on finding ways to hold onto one another emotionally, even if not physically, during this time.

As it turns out, discipleship in the time of coronavirus is like discipleship to Jesus at any other time. Disciples fix their eyes on Jesus and do so alongside their fellow-disciples (even if 3–6 feet apart). And yet, in a time when emotional withdrawal and isolation are both tempting and real, practices of attending to the presence of Jesus and attending to others are urgently needed. Perhaps one of the opportunities of these days is that we do not have the luxury to “play Christian” or “play church.” The realities of the moment force our hands. Turning and returning to the presence of Jesus and the presence of his people is the way of Jesus in these times and always.

A Few Follow-up Questions

Conversatio:Steve, I think one of Dallas Willard’s greatest contributions to discipleship was his reminder that the Trinity and the Kingdom are a here and now reality, which can be experienced and interacted with in the present moment. You mentioned several practices above which can help a person to be in a better position of experiencing Presence. Two questions. First, How big a deal is this teaching?
SLP:The incarnation of Jesus and sending of the ever-present Spirit of Christ makes it clear (if it was not clear before) that human persons were meant to do life coram Deo. In Revelation 21 we see that the culmination of all things—the restoration of God’s great plan for humanity—centrally involves human life in God’s loving presence. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is among the people. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’” (Rev 21:3–4). While we await that day, we do not live in a Divine-human relational vacuum. Rather, as Dallas regularly emphasized, the Triune reign of God is available here and now. And we can make progress in availing ourselves of God’s gracious availability. This teaching is a big deal because it is at the heart of who God is in his own Trinitarian reality and, therefore, it is at the heart of what God is doing with humanity.
Conversatio:And the follow up: what is the one thing that you do, yourself, that helps you live in an intensive, interactive, discipleship relationship with the person of Jesus?
SLP:I am a beginner in the spiritual life. Perhaps we are all beginners, but for a long time I did not practice what I preached. With that said, one thing that has been tremendously helpful is turning off my car radio. Just turning it off helped immensely to make space for hearing the news of God instead of the daily news cycle. It was an act of dependence or obedience. Turning off the radio has become a way of saying to myself and to the Lord, “I need you more than I need to know the latest horrible thing that has happened in the world” or “I want to be nourished by you more than by following my favorite sports team.” Of course, being “up” on current events has its place—especially when some of that news is practically important in dealing with this pandemic. But typically, I can listen to one news update a day and pretty much know what I need to know given my calling. After I got into the habit of turning off the radio, I added another discipline to my life behind the wheel. I began to pray meditatively through the Lord’s prayer as I drove to work or to the store. I began to “double-click,” so to speak, on the good news of “Our Father who exists in the heavens, hallowed be Your name.” God has really used that to reorient my mind.
Conversatio:Steve, I know just a bit about you as a father, and I’m very inspired by how you approach parenting. What are some ideas attending to children (young and old) during these times?
SLP:My wife and I are trying to figure that out! We have been inspired by so many others who are doing wonderful things as well as being really honest as to how hard it is to parent given the circumstances. We need to offer ourselves and others a lot of grace. None of us were prepared for this. Maybe the choices we make now will help us be better prepared for the next time—whatever the next trial is that comes our way.

Our kids are young and with us in the home. I hope one thing that is happening is that they are seeing our faith in action. Whether in our prayer language, our attitudes toward one another, or in how we are attempting to love others. Every night I read to my daughter before bedtime and one practice we have added since the coronavirus is to reach out by text message to one family in our community to ask how we can pray for them. We decide together which family to reach out to and we send the text before we start our bedtime reading. Usually about two or three minutes later we have a text back with some prayer requests. So we pray on the spot for that family as well as the families we’ve already prayed for and try to check back in with them to see how things are going. It’s a sweet time.

In general, this is a great time to start new habits. Trials and times of dislocation upset our normal rhythms and become opportunities to start new rhythms. If life was “normal,” I would not have had the idea to pray for families before bedtime in this way. And if life was “normal,” my daughter might not have been as open to it as she has been. Trials disrupt and in disruption we get a pass to try new things with our kids and with ourselves.
Conversatio:Thank you, Steve.
Steve L. Porter Professor of Theology and Philosophy, Biola University