As we move through this pandemic and begin to think of its impact and effect, many people are asking what is going to happen now. Some are predicting the worst. “The world will never be the same,” they say. “We’ll never go back to normal.” The pessimism about the impact of this pandemic is almost as bad as the pandemic itself.
Where can we go during times of trouble? One answer is Zahara de la Sierra in the Cádiz province of southern Spain.
Originally built as a castle and fortress in the Andalusian Mountains, Zahara has endured as a place of refuge and security for nearly a thousand years. The town was founded as an outpost for the Moors of the Maghreb; its location between the cities of Ronda and Seville was critical for military strategy.
While armies crisscrossed Spain during the Middle Ages, Zahara stood strong against both soldiers and siege. Opposing forces could not escape the all-seeing watchmen on top of Zahara’s walls, and any attempted incursion involved a steep and harrowing climb long before any battle was joined. The castle was eventually captured in 1483 by forces under the command of the Duke of Cádiz, but not without great effort and great loss of life.
Today, Zahara de la Sierra is a picturesque village of whitewashed houses famously known as pueblos blancos. Tourists flock to the town for breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and the clear, turquoise waters of the Zahara-El Gastor reservoir—not to mention the scintillating smell of orange blossoms from the surrounding countryside. Instead of soldiers and watchmen, visitors today find friendly locals eager to share their stories and their traditional Spanish cuisine.
In March of 2020, however, it became obvious to Zahara’s forty-year-old mayor, Santiago Galván, that a new enemy was creeping across the Spanish countryside, extending its tentacles through the Cádiz and seeking to make its way up the mountains toward his town. This enemy’s forces had already paralyzed great empires and threatened more devastation worldwide.
The enemy had many names, but the ones used by most Zaharans as they whispered together in their mountain homes was COVID-19. Or, more commonly, “the coronavirus.”
On March 14, Galván used his authority as mayor to “shut the gates” of Zahara. The entire town was closed, its only road in or out blocked and barricaded. All fourteen hundred residents were ordered to remain in their homes for an indefinite period of time, and no outsiders were permitted entry. The entire village was effectively quarantined not only from the virus, but also from the outside world.
The townspeople fully supported the mayor’s drastic steps. In fact, they joined together in an effort to keep their fortress secure. Two workers took up a car-washing station along the town’s main street, using equipment typically reserved for washing olive trees, in order to sanitize the vehicles of any residents who needed to venture out. Every Monday and Thursday at five thirty in the evening, a group of ten citizens donned protective gear and stepped outside to disinfect the streets. Other volunteers made sure the elderly had enough food and could request home repairs when necessary.
As I write this, the town’s efforts seem to be working, even as the broader community in Spain has been hit hard. There have been more than 170,000 coronavirus cases in Spain. Tragically, more than 18,000 of those cases have resulted in death, the third highest total among all the countries in the world.
Yet not a single person within the boundaries of Zahara has been infected.
Speaking by phone, Mayor Galván expressed pride in the spirit of his townspeople as well as Zahara’s status as a strong refuge. “We have managed to give tranquility to our neighbors,” he said. “They know no one ‘unknown’ can come in.”
There are many who wish they could face the coronavirus’s continued encroachment with the confidence of Mayor Galván and the people of Zahara. I wish the same were true of me! I would give much to move my family and my congregation to some isolated mountain peak so we could weather this troubling storm together.
Alas, I have no such assurances against this particular manifestation of the unknown. I must face it rather than hide from it, and I’m sure the same is true for you.
Personally, I have encountered many sobering seasons throughout my lifetime. I’ve seen wars begin and end. I’ve witnessed religious persecution break out in totalitarian regimes with surprising speed and violence. I was among those who watched the news each night, breathless with tension, during the Cuban missile crisis at the height of the Cold War. I have lived through the entire HIV/AIDS epidemic, which began when I was a young pastor in the 1980s. And I can still remember watching helplessly as United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
But I can’t say I’ve seen anything quite like the coronavirus pandemic that is currently squeezing every nation in its quick and deadly grip.
At the time of this writing, more than two million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19. More than 125,000 have died from the disease. Because of the speed and virulence of the coronavirus, more than half the people on this planet are “sheltering in place” under government-mandated instructions not to leave their homes for any nonessential activity. The world has been locked down.
To make matters worse, the virus’s rapid spread has isolated people from the communities they typically turn to in times of tension and fear. Churches have been forced to close their doors. Restaurants are still making meals, but only for delivery. Movie theaters, bowling alleys, and most retail stores are out of operation. And in a move that feels especially surreal to me as a California resident, Disneyland closed its doors to the public on March 14—something that has happened only three times in its sixty-five-year history.
Right now the questions weighing down my mind and heart are the same questions burdening people all over the world—including even those sheltered residents of Zahara: Why is all this happening? Do I have what it takes to get my family through? When will everything go back to normal as a nation? As a church?
And perhaps the most pressing question of all: where is God in the midst of these difficult times?
Such questions are not unique to the coronavirus, nor are they limited to global pandemics. These are the questions we grapple with whenever disaster falls upon us—especially when disaster strikes seemingly without warning.
Frankly, I don’t know the answers to the first four questions I mentioned above. Outside of conspiracy theories, no one can say why the virus is here. I’m anxious to lead my family during this time, but as a man in my seventies, I feel personally threatened by the coronavirus in a way I haven’t experienced since my recovery from cancer. And as much as I hope life will return to normal in a matter of weeks, I see little hope for that reality on the horizon.
Thankfully, I do know the answer to that final question, and it brings me peace when all other answers fail. Where is God during these difficult times? He’s right here. Right next to me, and right next to you. The same place He always has been and always will be.
You and I may not have access to a mountain fortress such as Zahara de la Sierra, but we can find refuge from the threat of any disaster—including coronavirus—when we turn to God and seek His presence. That’s because God is with us. He is supporting us. He is equipping us and empowering us with everything we need to endure not only this disaster, but any situation or circumstance we may face.
That’s why I have been so eager to prepare my latest book. Because even as I am sheltering in place, I’m also sheltering in God. I’m allowing myself to be surrounded by His presence and power and peace.
I want the same for you. I want the same for anyone who feels frightened and abandoned and uncertain about the future. And I know you want the same for those you shepherd and lead.
I don’t know all the details about what God is going to do during this time. But what I do know is what He has done! And that is what we can count on. The God who sheltered His people in biblical days won’t stop now. So, come what may, I am trusting Him to be my refuge.
And so can you. You can count on the sheltering God to help you no matter where you’ve been or where you’re headed. He wants you to move through your times of trouble with supernatural grace and unexplainable hope. How exactly do we do such a thing?
In my new book Shelter In God, we’ll look at several key examples from the book of Psalms in order to discover comfort, inspiration, and hope as we deal with the “unknown” of this moment—and any other season of suffering. Most of the psalms we will explore together were written by David, a man who was well acquainted with trials and tragedies of all kinds. Even so, he was still able to write these words: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Ps. 18:2 niv).
Through David’s example, we learn that there is hope even in the darkest of nights. Why? Because God is our shelter, and He will not fail.
Excerpt taken from Shelter In God by Dr. David Jeremiah, 2020
WHY YOU NEED THIS BOOK
Renowned pastor and teacher Dr. David Jeremiah believes comfort can be found in the Psalms, both now during the coronavirus pandemic and during all of life’s greatest challenges. This newly collected volume will show how finding refuge in God is always our safest place. Shelter in God offers hope in a time of uncertainty and relief to people who are experiencing real troubles and fear.
- Find ways to worship in times of trouble,
- experience prayer in pressure,
- show grace when you are at your wits’ end, and
- with God’s help, triumph over trouble.
Shelter in God is an invaluable source of help and encouragement for people facing major obstacles during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.