(RNS) — Charles Billingsley, a singer/songwriter at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, is used to performing worship songs for others. Once the lead vocalist of the worship group NewSong, he has produced 23 solo recordings and led worship at events such as Women of Joy and Gridiron Men’s Conference.
But as he lay in a hospital bed struggling with COVID-19 on Good Friday (April 10) — the release date of his new album, “I Was Made For This” — Billingsley discovered how much listening to that music could help him.
Billingsley, now a teaching pastor and worship leader at the megachurch, arrived in Lynchburg in 2002, when the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. was senior pastor and chancellor of Liberty University. The church is now led by Falwell's son Jonathan, while Jonathan's older brother, Jerry Falwell Jr., heads Liberty.
The 50-year-old tenor, who describes himself as “a Christian who happens to go to a Baptist church,” talked to Religion News Service on Thursday (April 30) about surviving COVID-19, what he thinks of Liberty University’s coronavirus response, and the role of worship music in difficult times.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
After a weeks-long bout of COVID-19, how are you feeling now?
Oh, I'm light-years beyond what I was. I've been COVID-free now for nine days, and I'm just feeling way, way better.
Have you been able to sing?
No, I couldn't sing for a while because this thing gives you double pneumonia. And so for several weeks there, every time I'd try to sing, I would cough. And yet this week I've had a lot of improvement. I still am doing a lot of coughing, but I even recorded a few songs for a few churches yesterday online. It wasn't stellar, but it's getting much, much better.
You were diagnosed in early April. What was your reaction to that news?
I'd kind of laughed it off, honestly, because most of the cases are fairly minor and not real dangerous, but man, after 10 days of 103-degree temperature, I got just aches and pains and horrible headaches. I was getting pretty sick of this thing. And, unfortunately, this virus, if it latches on like it did to me, it can go a long time, and after 10 days it moved its way into my lungs, and that's when things got pretty serious.
Were you ever fearful you would lose your life?
I was never fearful because my oxygen levels stayed high enough to where I never had to go on a ventilator. And I was there mainly for precautionary reasons. They were worried that if I wasn't near the hospital and I took a nosedive that I wouldn't make it back. And my blood work was so horrible, my doctor told me if I wasn't in decent shape, that I'd be dead. Because of that, it was necessary for me to be there and to stay there a while. But I never was fearful. I always felt like the Lord was going to take care (of me).
You tested negative less than two weeks ago. What has the recovery process been like?
The hardest part for me was what we believe were blood clots in my capillaries in my legs. Both of my legs had severe pain for about six days. So it was that, coupled with still dealing with this double pneumonia. I still do a lot of coughing, but you know, things are loosening up, and my legs don't hurt near as bad, and every day is just getting much, much better.
You tweeted in early March a "coronavirus set list for worship leaders," including “Give Us Clean Hands.” How did you keep your sense of humor?
I got real frustrated in the hospital, real disappointed. If I had to be just completely transparent with you, I got angry with God for not healing me like I thought he should. But you know what? I learned a lot of lessons through all that, had a lot of powerful moments of worship through all that. It's only been — what? — 10 days removed from this thing. But the Lord has dealt with me in so many ways that I'm not sure I would trade it for anything, although it was one miserable 24 days, I will tell you that.
You're an adjunct instructor at Liberty University, which has moved to mostly online activities, but only after President Jerry Falwell Jr. made a controversial decision to keep the campus open after spring break. How did you feel about that?
I did agree with him because the biggest issue was that the borders were closing and we have hundreds of international students. None of them had a place to go; none of them could get home. And so I thought it was pretty gracious of him to allow them to stay in their dorms.
This Sunday you're returning to the pulpit as a teaching pastor. Are you preparing differently than before your illness?
My pastor (Jonathan Falwell) asked me to come back and just do a message on some of the lessons I've learned through this. And so this was one of the easier messages I've ever written because I've had four weeks, and a lot of time in isolation, to just reflect.
What's the biggest lesson you've learned?
Well, really four basic things. First of all, life is fragile. I think we've all seen in the last eight weeks with this thing just how fragile our culture and society and economics and life itself can be. And then the second thing is how faith is so essential in our walk with God as we move forward. And faith is the evidence of things unseen. So it's not seeing and then believing. It's believing and then seeing, which was quite a difficult lesson I had to learn again as I was praying and asking the Lord to heal me.
The third thing is that fear is not an option. We really don't need to be afraid and full of anxiety and worry at this time, especially for believers, because we worship a God who is still in control and not surprised by any of this. And the last point is simply this: No matter what, keep your eyes on Jesus.
Given that music is so much of your life, is there one song that has meant the most to you through this month or more of illness?
Because my record was so new and because it came out one of the nights I was in the hospital, I took my earphones and I listened through the record. I hadn't listened to the songs for a while and there were a few songs on this project, a song called "Sing for My Soul," another one called "Where You're Supposed to Be." And then two more, "King of Glory" and "Spirit of God."
Those four songs spoke to me and ministered to me so much while I was in that hospital, but I must have listened to them a thousand times. That coupled with "Have It All" by Bethel Music and also another song called "The Goodness of God." Those six songs right there. Gosh, I listened to them over and over and over again. And it was a huge blessing.