The last month has been challenging for all people, God’s people included. It has been thirteen years since my wife and I experienced an Easter service alone, and that was alone in the jungle with no church yet formed. Today was so very strange for us to watch our pastor on screen, unable to gather with God’s people though our church building is less than ten miles away.
No doubt the oddities that have arisen from this worldwide pandemic will be many, and the unintended consequences … who can know? But one thing that we at Radius are praising God for is the continuation of the Radius program—for now. Being located in Mexico has some downsides, but there are some great upsides too. Continued training, albeit with significant modifications, is one of them.
To grasp the significance of this opportunity, let me remind the reader of the goal that is instilled in each Radius student, a goal that is relevant to every church and every Christian. The Scriptures are clear that the King has ransomed people from every “tribe, language, people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). Of these four, language is the easiest to recognize, yet 3,100 language groups remain unreached today. But to reach the last unreached language groups on this earth, it will take uncommon courage and perseverance.
Because of this, the ambassadors of the King who seek to work among these last languages must be prepared for the long, arduous journey ahead. To that end, the coronavirus provides a great glimpse and even opportunity for those whom God has chosen for this task. Let me highlight four ways in which this great evil can actually help God’s people in accomplishing the Great Commission.
1. It teaches us to deal with uncertainty.
For those who have lived in unstable countries overseas for any significant period of time, it takes little to be reminded of the instability that reigns. In 2016, when Nina and I returned to the United States, we were overjoyed to participate again in the “normal” life of a U.S. resident. Police officers do what is expected, planes arrive on time, the military is under control, trash is picked up at scheduled times, and grocery stores stay stocked.
As the coronavirus has started to bear down on our campuses in Mexico, rice and beans have run out in the local stores, the government is sending mixed messages, and the burden of being a citizen of another country while being locked down in a foreign country can make for much uncertainty. Don’t mistake this as a bad thing; this is a gift to those who are thinking of giving their lives (fifteen to thirty years) to plant a church among an unreached language group.
One of the things that we hold so very dear at Radius is that our campus is not in North America. Living in a developing country while training to work in a developing country has serious advantages. Uncertainty will be the air that our graduates breathe when they move overseas. What a gift from God that they get to practice breathing this air while still having professors, discipleship group leaders, and friends walk alongside them.
2. It reminds us of the great disparity between much of the world and our home countries.
Nina was recounting to me this last week how social distancing comes more naturally to our family. After all, we were exposed to a form of social distancing for nearly thirteen years. While there were seasons when our North American co-workers lived on site with us, there were significant seasons when our family was alone. Social distancing, at least from those who spoke the English language, was our norm. But these were the seasons that thrust us deepest into the lives of the people group, and into the grace of our God.
The world is not as many of us wish it to be, and it will remain so until all things are made new again. Hearing from Radius graduates and friends around the world, there is little hope of most of the world being able to enact the measures that we enjoy in the West. Social distancing only works if you have sufficient space; “shelter in place” is a tremendous luxury reserved for those who have houses and supplies of food; hand washing is unfathomable when running water is scarce; face masks and gloves are scarce for those with little money. The world is different for those who live hand-to-mouth—and for those who would live long-term among them, they must realize that this is their lot for many years. Health and safety are secondary concerns for the Christ-follower. This can be a startling revelation for many, but one that is dawning on all of God’s people more and more during this unique time.
3. It teaches us to number our days.
Psalm 90:12 reminds us to “. . . number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” To be honest, I am amazed each year that more and more young people step forward to take this training and lay down their lives for seeing God’s name made great among “the nations.” One of the qualities I have observed in many of these students is an attribute that is missing among many of their peers: the ability to think about the end of life with clarity and calculation.
The Scriptures speak of us as shadows, mist, grass that rises and falls. The effects of the coronavirus are still largely unknown, and those who fear death are right to be afraid. But if life is temporal, and true life awaits beyond the river, then the coronavirus is just one of many things that is part of living in an uncertain world. Each one of us should increasingly live with the realization that we are sojourners in a world that is not our own.
During this unusual time, I have been refreshed anew by the autobiography of John G. Paton, missionary to the New Hebrides. Before leaving for a land of known cannibals, one of his church members rebuked him for the danger he was walking into. Paton’s legendary response was,
Mr. Dickenson, you are advancing in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, where you will be eaten by worms; I confess to you that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day of my resurrection my body I will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.1
May we number our days, realize that they are few, and live accordingly.
4. It teaches us to trust in our God.
One of the most dangerous thoughts to Christians is the belief that events are random or out of control. If new events in life lead us to uncertainty in our Creator, where do we turn?
Forgive me a second John Paton quote, but he has been much on my mind as of late. After raising money for ten years for a ship that would serve the mission to the New Hebrides, and upon hearing that on its third voyage it had sunk on an uncharted reef, Paton was able to pull back to the Rock that had held him fast for so many years.
Though firmly believing that her loss was a great blow to all the higher interests of our Mission, I was able to say; “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away:”––but yet, God forgive me, it was very hard to add: “Blessed be the Name of the Lord.” But never, in my deepest soul, did I for a moment doubt that in His hands all must be well. Whatever trials have befallen me in my earthly pilgrimage, I have never had the trial of doubting that perhaps, after all, Jesus had made some mistake. No! My blessed Lord Jesus makes no mistakes!2
Life, in general, is full of uncertainty. But for the cross-cultural church planter there must be an abiding belief that every setback, every danger, everything—is ordained by the hand of the all-seeing, all-knowing God! What a comfort to know that even the coronavirus comes from the hand of our God, for his glory and our good.