Sheep with and without shepherds

I confess I’ve been troubled, for longer than the Coronavirus issue, at how Christians, including even my own local brethren, seem to have been amongst those most easily deceived by the lies surrounding us in the world. For in the Bible, Satan’s deception during the end times is represented as what distinguishes the elect from the reprobate (and not the bloody-minded from the law-abiding).

And so a couple of us had to fight to keep a small service going at church after the Christmas lockdown began, amid much recrimination about “health and safety.” Even in the church in which I serve as an elder I’ve had the sense of being a troublemaker in simply trying to ease the people out of unnecessary fear and into effective Kingdom action, at a globally crucial time.

But for sure Jesus gauged the crowds right when he saw they were “distressed ([literally ‘flayed’] and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd.” I think he saw that they were internally conflicted between what they were told by their leaders, and what they actually saw in Jesus. At least in many, there was a believer trying to get out if only a good shepherd were to be found.

An experience yesterday suggests that this is just as true today. Remember that, like nearly every other church, we left our people to flounder about in government propaganda for over a year, offering them only the far less powerful sop of live-streamed services (and I’m aware that for many readers, even those may have been lacking). The fears of members for their own health, the conviction that they might kill others, and just the general inchoate sense that whatever one might do must be wrong was palpable as we moved towards re-opening, once the laughable “Freedom Day” offered a few rays of insipid sunlight to break the leaden skies.

As a leadership we were, I think, already moving towards a more skeptical view of the dangers, but we took pains to minimise anxiety by setting aside a masked area, advising masks for moving around and singing, and keeping the obligatory microbiome-damaging handwashes around. Even so, our health and safety officer resigned. Nevertheless the signs were encouraging as open applause broke out the first time the congregation were allowed to sing, muzzles notwithstanding.

In fact, over just a couple of weeks the people openly relaxed as nobody died (no doubt helped by the non-appearance of the post-liberation disaster promised by Neil Ferguson and 1,200 hastily marshalled expert, but wrong, signatories of an open letter of doom to the government). The masks have been visibly diminishing in number, and we’re not about to insist on “the rules” if the people don’t.

Still, since last year I have wanted to do something positive for the health of our folks, many of whom are old and frail. Apart from the fear messages that have kept them locked up unhealthily indoors, they have been given false reassurance by the ineffective measures of cloth masks, social distancing and handwashing that we dutifully applied during those periods when meeting was allowed. Accordingly, last winter I suggested we might distribute high-dose Vitamin D to our most vulnerable folks, but the idea wasn’t taken very seriously by my fellow-leaders, and in any case lockdown ruined any chance of implementation.

Time has moved on, however. The leadership team has changed, the church is open, and the autumn infection season is not yet upon us. With the support of another elder who is a pharmacist, we planned a campaign to give at least a token measure of care by obtaining 4000iu tabs of D3 for the over 80s, the value of which I hoped would also filter down to the slightly younger “at risk” people.

But I did so in fear and trembling of being denounced for interfering with members’ medical care (not that there’s much of that in the NHS at present – though my pharmacist colleague told me that a few local GPs are prescribing high-dose Vit D already). Remember that I’m no longer on the medical register, and I guess many here don’t even know I was a doctor once.

My fears were confirmed when I put an advance notice in our news bulletin. An occasional visitor to the church (not a member) sent an e-mail to our administrator asking if I was actually medically qualified. When told I was he replied pointedly that he had only asked because he was surprised that the leadership was pushing fake news, since Vitemin D [sic] has no anti-microbial action.

In yesterday’s service I was due to announce the scheme fully and hand out tablets like some old dope peddlar. I was also booked to preach on the hard teaching of Jesus about giving in secret (which I took, in part, as a lesson to be wise to the PR and exploitation surrounding charity). So I felt rather exposed and fearful. But to my surprise, the end of my five minute spiel on the evidence for Vit D, and our decision to supply some, was greeted with spontaneous applause.

Not only was the uptake of the freebies good (with some intelligent octogenarian discussion on other medications, etc), but several people said that what they found encouraging was the idea of doing something positive for health, rather than waiting for the worst. Not only that, but a couple of people responded to the sermon by enquiring about regular giving, though I hadn’t made a pitch for that.

The lesson? The Holy Spirit is alive and well in the lives of God’s people, despite their being “distressed” (by national fearmongering) and “scattered” (by our neglect of them through our own craven compliance with the official narrative). What was needed, it appears, was just a smidgen of shepherding, and confident faith would be revealed.

I think the sheep now trust the shepherds just a little more than they did, which is a good thing as it will take considerably more serious (though not “heavy”!) shepherding to rebuild a church that can be effective in times of increasing deception and, in all likelihood, frank persecution. But we must never be tempted to forget that, for all our leadership failures, the Chief Shepherd of the sheep is Jesus himself, and he has not been idle among his people whilst they have been locked down, furloughed and pinged-off over the last 18 months.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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