“I left Trophimus sick at Miletus” (2 Timothy 4:20).
As some churches tiptoe back into corporate worship and ministries reboot in a post-corona mode, those who are immune-suppressed or elderly are being gently asked to stay home awhile longer. Some church people are free to return except if they care for children or for others whom they don’t wish to expose, and some may stay away from gatherings till a vaccine is found. A local pastor of 10,000 tells me that after a survey of the congregation, 51% of that church says that they will be attending in person as of June 28, and 49% will not.
There’s a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. For some, it’s still a time to refrain from embracing.
Paul strode forth on his last missionary journey with a goodbye embrace for a dear ministry partner; he reported to Timothy that “I left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus” (2 Tim. 4:20).
We know that Trophimus, a Greek, was from Ephesus, which was very near Miletus. He must have been sick indeed not to be able to travel the short distance home to recover. Friends and family would have been able to hurry over to Miletus to care for him, so Paul was not abandoning him.
Trophimus had long been a trusted sidekick for Paul (Acts 20:4), and Paul wouldn’t leave him behind lightly. Once when Paul and Trophimus were seen in Jerusalem together, the Jews were enraged; they thought Paul had improperly brought the Gentile Trophimus into the temple, resulting in what Mark Twain would have called “a misunderstanding conducted with crowbars.” Paul landed in jail because of the uproar (Acts 21:27-30). So he could’ve been excused for not traveling with Trophimus anymore; yet he did.
But illness finally parted their ways. Paul knew he himself was heading for cold weather, “evil attacks,” and ultimately death. His was not an itinerary for the faint or feeble, but a calling to mingle with multitudes, evangelize, and take risks. Trophimus’s calling was to suffer, wait, and trust. The God who gives us, in the words of the old hymn, “something still to do or bear,” gave Paul something to do, and Trophimus something to bear.
In one church in my town, some church members who don’t fit the guidelines for returning to services are feeling left out. Watching church online can begin to seem, as my grandmother used to say, “like kissing through a screen door.” The first thing that God identified in the world as “not good” was that a person should “be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Moreover, the urgent needs of this troubled and violent society make a call upon the able-bodied to get out there, just as they did in Paul’s time.
Our Pauls may be heading back into mission fields, joining political campaigns, or returning to classrooms. Trophimuses may be watching services from home but fully engaged in the life of the Body, or may be among those who had always been on the periphery of church and still need stronger contact with God’s people. What can both the Paul’s and the Trophimuses of our congregations do to remain connected—even unified—as weeks turn into months apart?
For the Pauls:
- First, we recognize our gospel unity. The “Trophimuses” are not separate from the church—they are the church as much as are those who are out and about.
- Second, we can simply ask them: How would they like to be acknowledged and included—and equipped for ministry? (They may have a narrow scope for ministry, but no one says it can’t be a deep one.) A large church near me is calling all their members, asking three questions:
- Do you need anything—groceries, errands?
- How can we pray for you?
- Are you having any trouble with our website? This last question graciously invites members to get help with navigating technology, and even opens the topic of how members can support the church financially because that ministry of giving must go on.
- Also, we can nurture our Trophimuses with personal phone calls, online meetups and notes, and most of all, prayers. Asking people’s opinions and input on other matters can show they are valued. Why not solicit their prayers for specific needs in the church? I recently asked one woman who is staying home to sell me some of the greeting cards she makes. Dropping off a plate of cookies or sitting at the proper distance on their porch reinforces our words of kindness.
- Rethink our view of homebound people. They may not be timid or ill. One man I know is not attending because his work during the week is with the homeless, and he faces constant possible exposure to coronavirus. Others work in ICUs and emergency response or in child care centers. The most common reason people are staying home in some states is simply that children’s programs aren’t yet available, and parents aren’t sure they can keep their little ones quiet during adult worship. Some leaders will do well to take this opportunity to become more creative in connecting those who aren’t in the pews on Sunday morning but are in the trenches all week. Those members may be Pauls during the week and Trophimuses on Sunday.
For the Trophimuses:
- You still have a mandate to serve. Ministry was possible for Paul even when he was chained to the slimy wall of a prison. Perhaps Trophimus had learned this from Paul himself. Does your church have a team of people who have time to write notes to a list of new visitors and homebound folks? It does now: all it takes is some snail-mail stamps and a couple of people like you who are willing to write encouraging notes to those on the list. If letter-writing was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for Trophimuses. In my city, there’s a church whose staff is making 25 up to calls per week to check on members. Maybe some laypeople could shoulder some of the task.
- Take full advantage of being discipled and comforted by the very best of Christian instruction online. There’s a feast of teaching and devotional writing available for such a time as this. Dig in! Many of the writers and speakers will even respond to a personal email from someone who has followed their work.
- Turn to the Lord Himself. I recently reminded one friend of John Milton’s poem about his frustration at being blind: the character Patience assures him that God doesn’t need our works or even our gifts: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” More encouragement comes from the words of Christ, who calls us no longer servants, but friends. He doesn’t need our bustling acts of service, but He does seek fellowship with us. “He died so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him” (I Thess. 5:10). He died so that we can be with Him, and nothing—not COVID-19, or lockdowns, or riots, or closed doors–can separate us from His love.
The God who watches our going out and staying in, the Lord who sends one into the wide world and shelters another in place, can be trusted to do all His holy will. Let’s do all we can to maintain the unity of the church as He creatively calls us into varied places.
Leah is a civil rights attorney, wife, mother, and active member of Christ Presbyterian Church, PCA, in Tulsa. Her podcast, “Conversation Balloons,” is available on most platforms and via the podcast page of her website, Leahfarish.com.