Gary Kirst turns COVID-19 into a learning experience


Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you in turmoil within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my salvation and my God.

(Psalm 42 verse 11, English Standard Version)

Caught in the midst of despair and depression, the Rev. Gary Kirst forced himself to fulfill a daily ritual: reading the Bible. He came upon Psalm 42, verse 11. It brought comfort.

He needed comfort and solace after COVID-19 brought him, figuratively, to his knees.

Kirst isn’t quite sure how he came in contact with the virus. He knew someone who had it, “but the time lines aren’t really clear,” he says.

He’d been careful; used hand sanitizer; hadn’t been to Walmart or Piggly Wiggly in a week.

May 9, a symptom appeared. Chills. He thought, “this is weird.”

His temperature hovered at 101 degrees for three days and “felt in a daze” for a “good week.”

After a first COVID-19 test failed, he was tested again. That didn’t thrill him.

“These tests are no fun,” Kirst says. “It feels as though they push the swab back into your brain.”

In addition to his general malaise and incredible fatigue, Kirst developed an itchy rash on both legs. That kept him from sleeping.

He recalls, “When you feel fatigued and down and you don’t get any sleep, you are on the emotional edge.”

In that emotional state, Kirst somehow found two blessings: the Bible verse and the experience dealing with depression. The tables had been turned.

As a pastor, he often tried to help those depressed and facing dark moments of their lives. “It was helpful to get a taste of what depression was like,” he says. “If you haven’t experienced gloom and despair it’s hard to relate.”

Kirst believes the Bible is a living book where God speaks to the human soul in a personal sense. In his dark moment, he came across these words, “Why are you cast down, O my soul.”

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“What I really appreciated about this (verse) is the psalmist preaching to himself. You are trusting in God and will again praise him by taking the long view. The promises are good,” he adds.

The word Kirst hung onto was “again.” There was hope for the future.

He’s also grateful that COVID-19 didn’t bring upon breathing issues. He says it’s interesting how the virus offers so many symptoms.

He’s also grateful for the help and care his wife, Linda, provided. “She was an unbelievably good nurse for me during these times.”

As May turned into early June, Kirst began feeling better.

As he now walks about Galena Bible Church preparing for a photo shoot, one can see he has a spring in his step. He’s his normal cheerful self with a positive outlook on the world. He admits, though, that he’s feeling about 85 percent of normal.

Although no longer contagious, Kirst says he’s careful and wears a mask in public for peace of mind. He doesn’t want anyone to suffer from the virus. He says that emphatically.

“This virus,” he continues, “is such an unknown thing. The longer it is around. . .the more you get used to it. The temptation is to get loose. It’s important to maintain it (the discipline of social distancing).”

He also knows life needs to continue.

Since mid-March, emails have been going out to worshipers three to five times a week. “We want to have an ongoing connection,” he says. “We want people to feel connected.”

To meet this goal, Galena Bible Church has created a new website for prayer requests and to present questions.

Kirst and his team are also busy planning an outdoor worship service. “We’re trying to be very careful,” he acknowledges.

Kirst says that he’s also openly acknowledged and shared his COVID-19 journey. It’s helped guide his congregation.

It’s also helped him as a pastor.

This journey has given him the opportunity to experience disillusionment, despair and depression. His heart is in a new place when it comes to offering pastoral care.

It’s also given him a renewed appreciation of the common blessings of life.

by P. Carter Newton