by Gil Afriat
In the first nine months of the covid-19 pandemic, it seemed like our congregation was being protected from the covid-19 virus. Yes, it was challenging for all of us being in long-term quarantines, not being able to meet in person, and trying to care for those who had suffered either financial or emotional difficulties. However, we were all so thankful that only two people from our congregation contracted the disease and both recovered quickly and without major symptoms.
Hope and Fear
Starting late December, just as Israel was beginning to vaccinate its citizens, more serious cases of the virus started to arise in our congregation. The Israeli government’s massive vaccination campaign caused responses on opposite ends of the spectrum in the community of believers and in society at large – hope and fear. Some felt hope that the vaccination was grace from God to allow us to start making our way out of this pandemic. Others, however, were gripped with fear—some legitimate concerns about the vaccine were engulfed by a tidal wave of conspiracies about the vaccination. To this day, fear continues to cloud the decision-making of many believers, causing much confusion.
Covid Hits Tiferet Yeshua
Then on February 2nd, we heard from a dear family in our congregation that the whole family was sick with covid, and the father, Orel, had been admitted to the hospital with breathing difficulties.
Orel and Monica Obreja are parents of nine children, making the seriousness of Orel’s condition feel more dire. They are also a well-known and beloved family in Tiferet Yeshua: we are a small congregation that feels very much like a large spiritual family. While Orel was in the hospital, Monica was so weak that she could not even stand on her feet. When she finally started improving a week later, two of her teenage sons were admitted to the hospital with breathing difficulties. That same week, Olga, one of our team members, and her whole family contracted the virus. Then we got word that the doctors had decided to put Orel in an induced coma in order to intubate him, which meant that his condition was dire.
The Valley of the Shadow
The following week, Orel’s condition took a turn for the worse, and Monica called us in tears: the doctors had told her that he only had a few days to live. A week later, our sister and co-laborer in the ministry, Olga, was admitted to the hospital with breathing difficulties. Then we learned that the music leaders of our worship team, a husband and wife team, were also infected with the virus. It felt like illness was all around us and death was knocking on the doors.
We did all that we knew to do: we prayed non-stop. We asked our international friends and partners to pray as well. Without having to ask or organize anything, the congregation came together and provided food and groceries for Orel’s family. Olga’s family was provided for as well. We felt like all the challenges we faced up until this point through the last year were nothing in the light of this struggle.
Battling in Prayer
For two weeks, the whole congregation was praying, fasting, and trying to help care for the immediate needs of our families who were hit with covid. We were encouraged with updates from Monica that the doctors were amazed that Orel was still alive. Then by the week of February 21st, we had news that his condition had slightly improved. We knew it would be a long process of healing for Orel and that we would have to organize long-term support for the Obreja family, but we were also hopeful that soon we would celebrate Orel’s healing.
Purim’s Death Knell
As we approached Purim that week, we learned that our worship leader couple was now bedridden with covid and that another woman from our congregation was also very sick with covid. As a pastor of a small flock, the attack on the lives of our people felt raw and deeply personal. Purim, a holiday of joy, celebration and divine turn-arounds, was on Friday that week, the day of our services (which we still hold on zoom), and we were preparing to hear a message of faith and hope for that day. Two hours before our service was to begin, however, Monica called to tell me that Orel had passed away.
I felt broken and confused, and yet I had to find a way to lead the service, to share with everyone the devastating news and point them, somehow, in the direction of His comfort and healing—one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I should have known, though, that it had nothing to do with me—Holy Spirit arranged the service in such an intimate and special way. It was healing and encouraging to everyone, me included.
God is Sovereign
This season of trials has taught me much. The greatest lesson I have learned is that the more I grow in my faith, the closer I draw to God and the more I understand about Him, at the same time I am discovering how little I know about Him and His ways as well. All I need to know in these challenging times is that God is sovereign, and He causes all things to work together for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28) – even suffering and the untimely death of a loved one.
Beauty for Ashes
We barely see one step in front of us, but God sees the end from the beginning and where each event will ultimately lead us. Along the way, God’s Word prepares us for these moments: when we pass through the valley of the shadow of death, He is with us (Ps. 23). We are actually blessed when we mourn because He will comfort us (Matt. 5:4). We consider ourselves happy to endure in sufferings (James 5:11). We discover Him intimately close to us when we are the most broken and vulnerable. In that place, He promises us beauty for ashes, oil of joy instead of mourning (Isa. 61:3), that if we sow in tears, we will reap in joy (Ps. 126:5). We are holding onto all these promises that He will bring about a rich harvest in each one of us of being closer to Him, more dependent upon Him, and filled with a joy that not even death can steal.