A theological reflection by Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon
“I have destroyed nations; their strongholds are demolished. I have left their streets deserted, with no one passing through. Their cities are laid waste; they are deserted and empty” (Zeph 3:6 NIV).
As Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon viewed photos and surreal scenes of cities on COVID-19 lockdown, he looked into what God’s Word had to say. He saw that this was nothing new. He said, “God is never surprised about anything that happens on earth.”
He shared this insight during a webinar talk on 28 May 2020 entitled “Embracing the Circuit Breaker and Beyond: A Theological Reflection”. It was a part of a series of online talks, “Shepherding Souls in Worship”, organised by the Methodist School of Music, which drew about 350 Christians from various denominations in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Later in the book of Zephaniah, God says, “I leave within you the meek and humble” (12:3). This tells us, Bishop Emeritus Solomon said, that God allows disturbances in the world for a very focused purpose of turning us towards Him. He quoted C. S. Lewis: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.”
In the Bible, the words “war” (or “sword”), “pestilence” (or “plague”) and “famine” appear often, for example in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and also in Revelation. “It looks like all of history is suffering from the combinations of these three things, which suggests to us that this will be the reality until the Lord’s return,” said Dr Solomon. For instance, the early 20th century saw three major disruptions: the Great War (1914–18, more commonly known as World War I); the Great Influenza (1918–19), a pandemic that infected 500 million and killed 50 million; and the Great Depression (1929–39), a time of great poverty, unemployment and hunger.
But, “if you examine the structure of the book of Revelation, you’ll find alternating scenes of terrible distress on earth contrasting with wonderful scenes of heaven and the sovereign majesty of God,” he continued. He advised that we look not only at what is going in the world, but also at God on His throne, which will give us courage, hope and faith.
In the light of COVID-19, what are some implications for our worship, during the pandemic and beyond? Firstly, Bishop Emeritus Solomon said, worship must be more serious. “When the pandemic passes, we have to resist the temptation of going back to our comfort levels because we have enough—money, food and entertainment. We live in a world that is constantly in turmoil, so our worship must be consistent with that reality.”
Secondly, we should include lament in our worship. A lament brings to God a complaint about this world, petitions God to do something, then moves to a statement of trust. There are 42 psalms of lament, the biggest genre in the book of Psalms, which suggests that it was an important part of Israel’s worship.
Thirdly, we must recover in our worship. “Online connections are helpful—they meet a need, and we thank God for this technology—but they can never replace true community,” Bishop Emeritus Solomon said. “We need to come together to learn how to do the ‘one another’ things that we read about in the New Testament: to forgive, bear with and love one another; to bear one another’s burdens. For that, we need community.”
He ended his talk with a reminder to keep our eyes open to the needy people we might not have noticed before: the marginalised, and those who were invisible. He emphasised that even when able to gather again in worship, we have to look beyond our four walls, as the Lord Jesus is Lord not just of our Church or our lives, but of the world around us. Bishop Emeritus Solomon affirmed: “God is in control; His hand is on the steering wheel. We need to trust in Him and be faithful.”
Sheri Goh is the Editor of Methodist Message.