One of the ways Jesus exercises his rule on earth is through his church. The world does not see Jesus, but it sees us. This should cause us to think carefully about how the world sees us. On the one hand, the judgment the world makes of us is not to concern us. We are more than willing to be considered fools for the sake of the gospel. Let the world deride our profession. But, in another sense, the judgment the world makes of us must shape our behavior. As we maintain a good reputation among outsiders, they, through their judgment of us, glorify God in heaven.
I think of this latter sense when I remember that “it has been testified somewhere” (actually in 1 Corinthians 9) that it is a gospel act to “become all things to all people that by all means we might save some.” And this comes to mind when I consider whether I should wear a mask in public places or not. I really am not a fan. Perhaps you are not either. However, there will be others who will be made more or less comfortable by my mask-wearing choice. In the judgment of whether to wear it or not, if by my wearing it I can protect some, then I should wear it. If my wearing it sends the message that I, a Christian, and I, a pastor, have concern and love for my neighbor, then it seems to me to be a good thing. I will become all things, even a mask-wearer, if by that means I might, if not save people, then at least not be a stumbling block before them.
And before you, rightfully, say to me “it has been testified somewhere” that I am a hypocrite, I own it. This conviction regarding mask wearing as a gospel act has only slowly come to me. I will start wearing it as soon as my wife finishes making mine.
But the principle I’m articulating here, of course, goes far beyond masks. May we be made to be fools before the world, if that is what it takes to retain honor to Jesus. But may we also be willing to be made foolish (and uncomfortable!) to ourselves if by that means we can show the love of Christ to those around us.
My wife and I were reading from Hebrews 2 on Ascension Day:
It has been testified somewhere,“What is man, that you are mindful of him,or the son of man, that you care for him?” (Hebrews 2:6)
First, I love how the author quotes from Psalm 8, but can’t remember where it’s from and says simply “somewhere.” He’s the patron saint of all of us with small brains and short memories.
But secondly, the text goes on
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death. (Hebrews 2:9)
We see Jesus crowned. On the third day he who died rose from the dead. On the fortieth day subsequent, he ascended into heaven. There he is crowned and from there he rules. We, it is acknowledged, do not always understand the nature of his rule. A pandemic has cut us off from one another and cut others off from life. But that is only the current distress. There are many others, many more personal, that you and I face on a daily basis, and they are all inexplicable and a mystery and puzzling to comprehend in the light of an ascended Jesus.
Some deal with this by saying that such things are outside of Jesus’ control. I say that his stilling the waves and raising the dead put that claim to rest. There is nothing beyond his reach. So it is only made harder to know that he who could cause a virus to stop or a broken mind to heal chooses not to do so.
Such things lead us to either deny the throne to Jesus, or to bow before him accepting as mystery those things we do not understand. And I urge the latter, not as concession but as the wisest path.He who died for us ascends as a good king. He who gave his life as a ransom for us is not one who in his ascended rule will cease to provide for us. For, behold, as he said before he ascended, he is with us. Always. To the end of the world. He always rules and he is always good and we may always hold those things close to our hearts.
As things begin to loosen up here in Florida, I’ve begun to hear a certain word used in a less common context. We mostly use the word “charity” to speak of economic resources given to those in need. But the word has an older, less economic use. Charity was in the King James Bible one of the cardinal virtues, and, in fact, in 1 Corinthians 13 considered the greatest of them. Charity is listed first as one of the fruit of the spirit. Where our translations read “love” this virtue was known as “charity.” I wonder if it is possible that in shifting the language we have lost from the idea the aspect of giving that is a necessary part of this virtue. Charity is love given, and in the days ahead, it is a gift we will need to give each other. Particularly we will need to give space for those around us to think differently.
I could write at length about decisions as simple as whether one wears a mask to the grocery or not. The weighing of individual choice against the common good, balancing necessary and unnecessary risk, being comfortable and being wise, are all factors entering into such a decision. And whatever the issue, if we agree, all is good. If we do not agree, however, we need to be willing to give each other the space, the grace, the understanding, to hold those different views without judgment or condemnation. This is to show one another charity. And these days are requiring charity.
The elders of our church have not yet made a decision as to when to renew public services (though the conversation is happening and discussions of what that will look like are well along). Other churches have already begun to meet. Some of you no doubt wonder what is fueling our hesitancy. Others may be fearful that we might move too quickly. We as leaders need your charity as we make some unprecedented decisions.
And once we have begun services, there will be again a great need for charity. Some will feel comfortable with coming, and others will not. Some will want to be more physical than others. Some will wear masks, and others won’t.
Perhaps now is the time to remember that 1 Corinthians 13 and its reminder that charity “. . . does not insist on its own way. . .” and “. . . is not irritable or resentful . . .” was not written for a marriage ceremony but for a church whose practice of charity was lacking. Charity is in my experience one of your stellar virtues. But I think we all need a reminder to tend even to our strengths in these times.
We know that an idea has reached faddish territory when it begins to be mocked online. Apparently the idea that we are “in this together” has become something of a refrain, as ubiquitous as the frequently bandied comfort “thoughts and prayers.” This is something of a shame because one of the more stunning realities of a pandemic is the fact that it is, in fact, global. Where once the idea of “in it together” may have applied to a single town hit by a tornado, or a region or state impacted by a hurricane, now the word “all” is globally inclusive. That is hard to conceive.
That said, it is significant that while the “all” of “all in it together” is global, the “it” is quite local. While I may be unable to buy popcorn and you unable to buy toilet paper, in some parts of the world the pandemic makes it hard to buy food. Around the world the number of children receiving inadequate nutrition has spiked and in many areas that can mean death. I am unhappy because there is no baseball while, by contrast, my friend Steve was unable to see his mother as she lay dying in a nursing home.
And it need not be so dramatic. Some of us are enjoying the lack of a commute and the ability to work in our pajamas. Others, however, are under intense pressure adding to a heavy work load the stress of family compression and supervising home schooling for several children.
So clearly the “it” has different meanings for different ones of us.
I was reminded of this when I received an email from a Kenyan pastor supported by our church. After asking about our welfare, he reports “For us we’re doing ok, safe with my family and the congregation as well. But still things are terrible. We’re indoors, no services going on. Challenges of food and others are facing the common man. The government extended the curfew and lock down more 21 days again for the sake of safety but the number [of deaths, I presume] is increasing every day going higher and higher which is terrible.”
If we are in “it” together, I thought you should know that this pastor and his congregation is one of the “we” with us, and the “it” they are in may be more grim than ours.
And yet, he is praying for us, as is another pastor, this one from Uganda, who asked me last week to pass on to you this message: “Let them know that their brothers in Africa are praying for you all.”
They are in with prayer for us. May we be in with prayer for them. Let’s in this way “all” be “in it” together.
After making another successful raid on Publix, our grocery store, the other day (it’s quite the adventure these days) I was caught up short by the realization that I had made it a standard part of my conversational repertoire to complain about the excessively personal questions that Publix clerks are encouraged to ask. “Do you have any plans for the weekend?” “You have anything going on tonight?” I know they have to do it, but the questions feel intrusive and I wished they would stop.
And now, there is a plastic shield between us and they are “gagged” with masks. “No, God, I didn’t mean that.”
A couple of months ago I lamented in my journal that I wanted Sundays to be more relaxing. Yes, it is a work day for me, but I thought that with some changes it would not be as stressful. But being realistic, I realized that I’m too much a creature of habit and routine. I wasn’t going to change.
But now my sermons are completed and preached on Friday mornings and I “go to church” with my feet propped on a footstool. “No, God, this is not what I meant.”
I’m not saying that this pandemic is all about me. I’m not the cause of it. But I can see that there are worse things than what I complained about two months ago. And it makes me want to go back.
But as I said in a previous week, going back is not the option.
There are those who are projecting dire changes for the church in the years ahead as a result of this period. Futurists are often wrong, and I’m not as glum. But that does not mean there will not be challenges. And the challenge at the outset will be how do we get back to doing what we do. Not only when will we meet again, but what will that gathering look like? Those are big questions that the church leaders will need to deal with.
Personally, I’d rather have church in my living room for just a bit longer than to mandate mask wearing or require “call ahead seating.” But perhaps these things will be uncomfortably necessary for a time. The issues are bigger than we are.
The changes I’m primarily concerned about are ones of habit. Like it or not, your and my habits have changed. I am profoundly grateful for those who have helped us maintain ministry in the midst of pandemic. None of us had any preparation for this, but you have helped us adapt. Community groups, the prayer gathering, our Ladies Bible Study, and who knows what else have continued to thrive. I was tempted Wednesday night to take a picture of Cord leading the youth group – sitting at a table with a computer-screen-full of faces before him. Ministry goes on because you are making it go on.
But it is abnormal ministry. It is ministry with a limp. And though we will learn good things from this, I’m concerned for the bad habits that could easily take root. For me, Sundays have become a wonderfully relaxing day. Perhaps you have found the same to be true. No clock, no deadlines, no frantically trying to get the family ready to walk out the door on time. Worship is a video. We can do that at 8:00 AM or 11:00, 2:30 PM or 4:36. Or not at all. And no one else will care, or know. What will that mean when once again worship starts at 10:30AM at a location on County Road 419? Will the power of the new habits carry over?
I’ve discovered that at heart, I’m a thoroughgoing introvert. Days of isolation agree with me. I like people, yes, but I like them in measured doses. I’ve learned in my isolation that I could probably live this way for a long time. Will it lead to avoiding contact or connection when normalcy, whatever it looks like, returns? Will the power of these habits carry over and become bad habits?
Experience tells us that ritual and routine are critical factors in those habits that help us flourish. Worship is but one example. Some of us developed the habit of flossing at an early age. Today, you can’t fall asleep at night unless you’ve flossed. Consequently when you are old, I will look with envy upon your fine, healthy teeth and gums. Habits serve us well. But when they are broken they can be hard to regain, as bad habits take over.
There will be a day, perhaps not too distant, when the former ways of being a church, gathering face to face, singing together, and communing together will return in some fashion. We introverts will need to climb out of our caves. We free spirits will need again to adhere to a schedule. We individualists will need to regain the value in the corporate. We who wore our pajamas to “church” will need to get dressed on Sundays. This will require, for some of us, great effort, believing that we are by so doing leaning into something good.
I want you to begin preparing to make that effort. If we do, we will emerge from this stronger. And better. I think I will be more friendly to the then newly ungagged and unmasked Publix clerk. And I may just realize that I am able after all to have a sermon ready to preach by Friday.
Barb and I prayed this morning thanking God that, as far as we know, none of the members of CPC have yet contracted COVID-19. We pray that that will continue to be the case and that the impact of the coronavirus will dissipate quickly.
But other than the obvious desire that fewer people get sick and die, why would we pray that? Is it so that we might once again resume our normal lives? I think it important to ask the question of what our normal lives ARE and what it might mean to return to them.
I have been wondering how things as simple as trips to the grocery store might forever be undertaken with more caution. At Publix there is now a plexi-glass shield erected between the customer and the clerk. There is no reason to expect that those shields will come down. Life on the other side in many ways is going to be different.
But such thinking also makes me realize that the life we are living right now is not an interlude interrupting real life. It IS real life. Life under the influence of coronavirus is the life we are called to live right now. We are not to see ourselves in a holding pattern waiting to get back to life as we used to live it.
Rather we are to see the way things are now as the life in which we are called to live. And so we pray that God will guide us to live well in this new setting. Not only that, we pray that God in showing us how to live in THIS setting will along the way open up doors for us to live better in the world that will be once this crisis has past.
While running last Friday (running either gives me clarity or makes me mentally unstable – the jury is still out on that one) I thought that with the proper precautions, I could bake cinnamon rolls, a staple of the Easter Sunday breakfast (which we sadly be missed this year) on Saturday and invite the congregation to come and get them. My thought here was that at least a part of the past could be retrieved. And it was. But God’s vision is not to the past in this, but to the future.
On Saturday it occurred to us that Barb and I being out front with rolls could be a great way to engage our neighborhood. So we posted to the neighborhood’s Facebook group that we would celebrate Easter by giving away free rolls Saturday evening to any in the neighborhood who wanted some.
As many of you know, we gave away six dozen rolls in thirty minutes Saturday, leaving many wanting. So Sunday morning, after the Zoom sunrise service, I made six dozen more. These I offered directly to the CPC people who missed them Saturday, and once again to the neighborhood. We gave away another three dozen, a good proportion of these to families in our neighborhood. The gratitude from our neighbors was effusive.
What’s the point? By learning how to live in the current situation, not merely lamenting the loss of the past, we have learned a practice that will change our future. Next year, should God allow, we’ll have Easter breakfast at the church. And again there will be cinnamon rolls, along with all the other good things that CPC people provide. But on Saturday evening, in our neighborhood, Barb and I will be on our driveway, giving away rolls to our neighbors and perhaps making connections that will change lives forever.
There is so much of God’s special leading in that story. Not all of what any of us do or can do will be that public or dramatic. But I pray it will be as good and, importantly, enduring. These are not to be days wasted or days merely endured. They are to be days lived.
And I pray that when we get to “the other side” we will carry with us new gifts and new tools and new joys for living.
Social distancing has become a common phrase in our vernacular. But what about the opposite: “social compression” or “family compression”? Much is said about distancing ourselves from others to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, but how do we handle living with loved ones in a confined space for more hours than we are accustomed to doing? I love my family (there’s six of us), but spending all this time together under one roof tries one’s patience. And while spending all this time together, I find myself getting agitated, observing more flaws, and becoming more critical of the ones I love. So what are the guidelines for handling “family compression”? Here is what I suggest: exercise patience, kindness, and goodness.
Paul reminds us: “Love is patient and kind.” 1 Corinthians 13:4. Patience and kindness (and for good measure, I’ll add goodness) are the out-workings of love. We must keep in mind these three qualities/fruits as we love one another in our confined space.
Patience means “long suffering” and it denotes patience with people rather than circumstances. (Forbearance towards those who are demanding or aggravating. It never forgets the patience of Christ toward us.).
Do: be patient with each other; your loved ones will irritate you, but that’s because they are not you. Honor them in the uniqueness that God has made them.
Don’t: expect them to be you or to know your unspoken thoughts.
Kindness is benevolence, generosity of thought, wishing good to other people.
Do: encourage one another and point out what they are doing well.
Don’t: be sarcastic. It’s easy to be snarky and sarcastic when agitated, so hold your tongue.
Goodness is beneficence, generosity of deed, actually doing for them the good we wish them.
Do: serve one another; find what your loved one’s love language is and speak that language. In my family we have been going for walks together, baking treats, and playing lots of card games. I love hugs, so I’m looking to give or receive them.
Don’t: isolate yourself and withdraw.
As we celebrated the passion week, we were reminded that God’s kindness [is] offering or providing salvation through Christ Jesus (Rom 2:4; 11:22; Eph 2:7; Titus 3:4). Believers imitate God and Christ whenever they are generous to others, but especially in extending benevolence to those who are not loving in return. So as we practice “family compression,” remember to be patient, kind, and good to each other.
As we endure these weeks of separation, my feelings are quite numb. It is such a surreal time that my heart does not really know what to feel. For me, the predominant emotion is sadness. This morning as I was praying for members of CPC, my impulse for some was to say, “I need to check in on this person or family. We should have them over for lunch.” And then I had to check myself. We cannot do this, not now, and not for at least thirty days, probably longer. This has left me hanging a bit trying to adapt to this new world and the way ministry can be done.
For others of you, your emotions are far more intense. You are afraid, understandably so. You or those with whom you live are the vulnerable. Every cough, every ache, every body anomaly has you wondering and worrying.
Others of you are experiencing the severe financial pinch of this, and you feel an anxious dread. You wonder if you’ll have money to meet the expenses of the next few weeks or months. You wonder whether your business will survive or if your job will be there when this is over.
And still others of you are harried beyond measure. You love your kids, but suddenly you are having to work from home, and somehow supervise your kids schooling, without losing your sanity or exploding in anger.
These are tough times in which the church is unable to be the resource it has been in the past. We need others, we need their laughter, their encouragement, and as bodily creatures, we need their hugs. Hugs, and presence, are a casualty of the current situation. We can reproduce some aspects of our ministry, but meeting virtually is not the way church is supposed to be. Some of us struggle with our faith and need public worship so we can lean on the faith of those who are not.
All of this makes me sad.
But we do what we can.
It is intriguing to note that there were periods, at least, in Jesus’ life when he opted for periods of social distancing. “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray,” Matthew tells us. This is, at least, one thing that we can be doing. Stephanie Ilderton every month puts together a lovely prayer guide with recommended daily prayers. Download that and put it with your Bible. The April requests swirl around the needs that this unique time has brought to the table. Pray for these, for others in the church, for those in your community group, for those who are vulnerable.
We are a church, and to speak of a church in isolation from one another is in many respects a contradiction. The words translated “church” in the Old and New Testament are words that mean “assembly.” We are MEANT to gather, to do what our commitment to life right now does not allow us to do. Zoom Bible studies and session meetings and community group meetings are welcome, but not the norm. We are meant to be together and the longer this goes on the more we will feel that.
Recently my son and daughter-in-law reflected on the deep loss felt when the church is not able to gather. It is worth a listen.
The church is meant to gather and we are missing that deeply.
But as we lament what we have lost, I hope you still laugh. There is sorrow about, but “a joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” (Proverbs 17:22) To laugh is to acknowledge that the kingdom of this world will fall. To laugh is to know that there is yet something better before us. That was the hope that permeated the reigns of Israel’s kings, this longing for the Messiah, for something better, and it is still the hope of the Christian looking for the return of Christ.
But, we are asked, though we do not know the timing of our savior’s return, do we know when public worship will return? There [were] public calls for us to return to worship on Easter Sunday, calls based more on wishes than fact. We were not able. We will continue to monitor the counsel of public health agencies and remember that to take steps to reduce the spread of a virus is a very pro-life act. For the church to sacrifice for a time for the sake of our neighbors is an act of love.
But this I can say: when once again God’s people here and elsewhere are cleared to join in public worship, THAT day will be Easter, no matter when it falls. That Sunday will be the Sunday we celebrate life and the promise of life in Him, for the Lord is risen, indeed.
We still celebrate life in the face of death. When we do, we mock death which seems in the moment to be winning the battle. With the resurrection we know that he, and we in union with him, have won the war.
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)
Our laughter says we believe that to be true. So perhaps you can laugh with my son and daughter-in-law? They are not only sensitive to the longing we have for worship, they have a good sense of humor.
The Scottish pastor of the 17th Century, Samuel Rutherford, when cut off from the congregation he loved, wrote letters to some of his congregants. It’s what he could do and so it is what he did.
The ministry of the Apostle Paul often took him away from the churches he loved and who loved him. Even when he was imprisoned, to stay in touch with these churches, he did what he could do. He wrote them letters.
I am no Rutherford and certainly no Paul. But when I realized that the church I pastor was not going to be able to do what churches do – meet – for an unknown period of time because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I understood their impulse. I have attempted to pastor with letters.
The response has been surprisingly positive, and suggests that others might find value in the more general reflections contained in these letters. Our current “imprisonment” is global, not local. I can therefore hope that the perspectives brought through the excerpts I will post might be of some encouragement to a broader audience.
We often read Psalm 42 as a lament born of a depressive spirit.
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?”
Psalm 42:5 and 11
It is that, of course. But in his sorrowful state, what does the psalmist long for? Clearly he longs for God.
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
Psalm 42:1, 2
Specifically, he longs for God as God is present among his gathered people. He longs to appear before God with “the multitude keeping festival.” (42:4) That is, he longs for public, corporate worship.
We are living in an extraordinarily difficult time during which your longing for public, corporate worship will deepen. We never quite know what we have until it is taken from us, and this has been taken from us. We long for its restoration, and when it is restored that which we may have at one time taken for granted will be richer. We meet God in the gathered worship of the church. Virtual worship can only approximate that. We will pant and thirst for God and find him when we once again are able to join the multitude. Pray that this might come quickly.
As we pray that we might soon be reunited, may I suggest a prayer for this moment in time? Barb and I discovered this prayer last Sunday morning during our prayer time together. It is the prayer for the Third Sunday in Lent from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. As you pray it, you will see its applicability to this time.
“Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”