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Diagnosed with COVID-19, Local Pastor Dan Nold Offers Message of Hope

by on March 27, 2020 6:00 AM

Earlier this week, I found myself wanting to offer hope to folks throughout our area. We may still describe our locality as “Happy Valley,” but I wonder if that’s an accurate label right now. We’re getting hit with a constant flow of bad news and who among us hasn’t felt fear about health, finances or both?  

Yes, I wanted to offer a message of hope to our community, but who could be the spokesperson?

If the Bible is a book that’s filled with hope—and I think it is—then someone who teaches regularly from the Bible might be able to give a lift to all of us. Perhaps even those who don’t consider themselves religious. 

I decided to contact Dan Nold. He is one of our area’s most senior pastors, having led Calvary Church for nearly 26 years. He holds a master’s degree and a doctorate from Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. And he’s certainly got his finger on our area’s pulse as the leader of a body that embraces more than 1,500 regular attenders at seven weekly services (during non-pandemic times) in Boalsburg, State College, Millheim, Lewistown and Tyrone.

So I sent a text message on Tuesday morning to one of Dan’s staff members, requesting an interview with the veteran clergyman. What I didn’t know then was that Nold himself had joined the small group of Centre Countians who had been diagnosed with COVID-19. (Incidentally, another local pastor is also among that group: State College Presbyterian Pastor Dean Lindsey spoke with WPSU about his experience earlier this week.)

Would Pastor Dan grant me an interview? Noting that “I have a little energy but that’s about all,” Nold said he would be glad to talk. And so, on Wednesday we spent time together on the phone while he was resting at home. The following contains portions of our conversation, filled with honest insights into the pastor’s coronavirus struggle but dominated by his expressions of hope for the future. 

Tell me about your own experience with the novel coronavirus. How were you exposed to the virus?

Nold:  I do strategic planning for churches and other organizations every once in a while. I was leading a group in Portland, Oregon and it was a three-day event from March 7 to 9. And one of the gentlemen who was there Saturday and Sunday didn't show up on Monday. I came home and a week later on a Sunday evening, March 15, was when the symptoms showed up for me. I went to the doctor on March 17 or 18 and they tested me for flu. That came back negative so they immediately tested for COVID-19 and that was positive on March 22.  

What were your symptoms when you first felt sick? 

Nold: Mostly for me it's been fever, nausea, lack of appetite, fatigue, body aches. I've had a little bit of respiratory stuff but not very much. Monday of this week was my worst day of the 10 days so far. I can’t remember ever feeling as sick as I did that day, but Tuesday and today (March 25) were a bit better. Today, so far, I've been fever-free.

What was your emotional response when you realized you had COVID-19?

Nold: To be honest, there are challenges (in the Bible) not to fear; not to worry about anything. But it isn’t saying we should be robotic, not have any emotions. I think the emotions that came initially for my wife and me were a sense of discouragement and concern. I was probably more concerned that I didn't give it to somebody else than I was in having it myself. So I was wrestling with all of that—thinking of who I had spent time with and needed to contact. And praying, “God, keep it confined to me.” That’s been my prayer for my wife, Lynn.  She’s been with me the whole time and she hasn't had any symptoms to this point.

There was also some discouragement in feeling a responsibility to lead in a situation that nobody went to school for. And then you're not really feeling your best. So I felt a little bad for my team. But the team is great. Calvary’s staff is great and they've done an amazing job. 

What are some of your favorite examples of how people have rallied around you? 

Nold: Yeah, more emails than I can count, mostly people letting us know that they are praying for us. And, you know, people dropping things off.  We’ve had a lot of ring-the-doorbell-and-run kinds of things. People dropping off everything from chicken noodle soup to chicken pot pie to Hog Father’s barbecue, because somebody remembered that I said in a sermon that I liked it. More offers of help than we could ever need. But honestly, it's just knowing that people are praying and they care. That's a huge thing. You feel a little bit humbled by that, but that's part of the process—God working in all of us to take a posture of vulnerability in the midst of something like this.

What important steps have you taken to protect others and yourself?

Nold: Even before I had virus symptoms we were one of the first churches in the area that I know of to cancel services. We made the decision on Thursday evening March 12 to cancel for that weekend. So we were already canceling services and already canceling larger meetings and starting to set up Zoom and online worship. So we were pretty quick to try to do what we thought was right and listen to our (governmental) leaders. 


Calvary Church honored Nold last May upon his 25th anniversary of service.  Shown with Dan and Lynn are their granddaughter, Rory, and Stacy Sublett, Calvary’s Gathering Pastor in Boalsburg.


If you were to offer words of hope to people in our community as they're struggling with health fears or financial fears, what would you say?

Nold: I put together a prayer guide and part of it was a reminder of some biblical truths. Basically, the coronavirus is not a trouble that's beyond the power of Christ. We’ve been studying John 14, 15, 16 and 17, where Jesus is giving halftime instructions to his disciples and, and he keeps telling them that they’re going to have trouble, but to take heart. So I’m certain that we're going to have trouble, but it's going to be OK. Another truth in that passage is that God has not abandoned us. He's in the midst of the trouble along with us. That’s what Romans chapter eight is all about, that nothing can separate us from the love of God that we find in Christ. And a third one is that the coronavirus is part of the “anything” that we’re challenged not to worry about. Philippians 4:6,7 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” 

I've sent out other verses about fear and trust, but mostly I've said to people, “Just read John 14 through John 17 a hundred times and let the promises and resources there settle in and saturate your heart.”

Is that a bit of an exaggeration or are you saying to literally read John 14 to John 17 a hundred times this spring?

Nold: It's an exaggeration if people want to take it as an exaggeration. But I think it'll benefit them if they read it a hundred times. We have people who are diving into it and talking about John 14 through 17.

Do you have any other favorite passages that address fear? This is certainly a time when we face fearful circumstances. 

Nold: This is not original with me, but I often say that the most frequently repeated command or encouragement in Scripture is some version of “Do not be afraid.” So how do we walk through the valley of the shadow of death from coronavirus without fear? Well, according to Psalm 23, it’s because God will be with us. That's the most frequently repeated promise in the Bible—“I will be with you.” And that’s the only reason we have any hope of fulfilling the most frequently repeated command—“Fear not.” So we're not called to live fearless lives because the world is safe. We're not called to live fearless lives because nothing bad will ever happen. We're not called to live fearless lives because evil is not real. We’re simply called to live fearless lives because God is with us and nothing can separate us from his love.

I'm not saying there is no trouble in the world. Jesus didn't say that. I'm just saying don't let fear keep you from living or loving. Don't make safety your top value.

You believe in a sovereign God. Why do you think he allowed this ailment to sweep across the world and across our country? 

Nold: Any time you start talking about God's sovereignty, it quickly goes to, “You're telling me God did this to me?” But my focus is on the good that God wants to bring out of this. How Romans 8:28 says that he’s working for good. So here's what I think. I think God is giving us a worldwide Sabbath for a little bit. Once I knew I had COVID-19, I began wrestling with some things like peace and contentment. And I had to acknowledge my lack of control. The more I try to control things, the more fearful I get and the less I feel in touch with God. As I think about the concept of Sabbath, I think it’s a way that God wants to remind us that once a week we’re obviously not in control and the world continues on, even though we’re not being productive. So maybe he’s saying right now, “Just take some time off and spend it with me. I don’t know. I just have the sense of God trying to woo the world back to himself—not standing in judgment but with his arms wide open.  

Your message last weekend at Calvary Church was titled, “Hope Is Contagious.”  What were you trying to say as you spoke to the people through an online connection?

Nold:  The word that God has planted in my heart during this time is “hope.” And when I think of hope, it's a sense of expectancy. I don't know exactly what God is doing. I just believe it's good. What takes away fear is to say, “This is going to be okay.” Well, I can't tell you exactly how this coronavirus thing is going to turn out. I'm just telling you that in the end God is going to work it out for good. And how we respond is going to determine how we experience it.


Three generations of the Nold family gather for a photo. 


How do you think your church will be different after the crisis has passed over? 

Nold: That's the million dollar question, isn't it? If I knew the answer to that, I could do a webinar and make a lot of money. I think every church is trying to figure that out. I think that God is doing a reset, so my biggest fear is that everything will just go back to normal. There’s something that needs to change, but I can't tell you exactly what it is. I think some portion of the technology is going to stay; most churches are going to increase their digital footprint. But I don’t think that's the change God is making. I think it has more to do with the pace of life and a healthy sense of not being so in control of what we think will bring us joy. Maybe this reset includes more time for people to be with their families and loving their neighbors. 

Have you already seen some inklings of change?

Nold: In our church, we’ve been pushing what we call “Front Yard Missions.” I think we’re poised to have people just go out and love their neighbors. We’re not the only church in town that is doing that, not by any stretch of the imagination. But I’m hearing stories all the time of people reaching out to their neighbors and offering help. You know the thing that keeps us from loving our neighbors is the awkwardness of admitting that we've lived there for 10 years and we don't even know their names. Well the disease has taken all the awkwardness away. You now have a context for calling your neighbor up or leaving a note on their door.  The thing I keep hearing the most often is somebody taking a wrapped up roll of toilet paper and taping it to the neighbor’s door with a note that says something like, “I’m here to pray for you.” In any other context, that would be the epitome of awkwardness.

Is there any unique aspect of life here in State College, either a positive or a negative, that will be profoundly affected by this epidemic?  

Nold:  The thing that I've always loved is that we serve in a place that is compacted with the next generation. We’ve loved having college students, high school students, middle school, elementary, the next generation being part of Calvary. It sounds kind of weird to say this with the university students basically gone for the next six months, but we're going to have an even deeper love for the next generation when they get back in town. We’re going to redouble our efforts to let them know how much Jesus loves them.

What is your biggest, boldest prayer that has to do with the coronavirus and its effect on us? 

Nold: It's kind of an old word, but the word that has been on my heart for decades is “revival.” If the church is revived then it won’t be all about political power or maintaining comfortable lifestyles. The church needs to be about serving people in the world.  To use a phrase we say at Calvary, we need to show people the living proof of a loving God. I love Calvary and I love the overall church in State College and in central Pennsylvania, but we are not yet all we could be. And to people who have been hurt by the church, I would offer our deepest apologies and simply say, “Father God loves you with an unrelenting heart.”

So I pray there's a real awakening for the church. I'm praying that our hearts are captivated by Christ more than they've ever been and that we have opportunities to look more like Him at the end of this than we did at the beginning. God is up to something through this crisis. He’s working something out for our good.

Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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