Obviously, life has changed a whole lot in the past few days. Michigan voted in the Presidential primary on Tuesday 3/10, and that seems like months ago as I write this on Sunday 3/15.
The world is in a health crisis. So is our nation, our state, our community. Wherever you are, your situation is similar. The Covid-19 virus has officially been labeled a pandemic, and variations on self-distancing and public isolation are taking place throughout the world, from school closings to entire countries on lock-down.
In our state, the Governor has placed a ban on gatherings of 250 or more. For the church I lead, that means we are legally not permitted to gather for worship. For many smaller churches, the decision remains as to whether or not to gather in worship. The key issue is love for our neighbor, but what is more loving: providing frightened people with a safe place to gather around the Word and Sacrament of a loving God? Or encouraging those same people to stay at home and be safely distanced from the risk of infection?
First off, worship is essential to who we are as Christians. The Christian life is one of relationships, as much as American individualism may say otherwise. Biblical Christianity is more than simply “me and Jesus.” We are born into relationship (with our family), we are saved by relationship (with Jesus), we are called into relationship (in the Church), and we are tasked with relationship (to love our neighbor). Thus, to isolate oneself from others is antithetic to who we are as believers.
And yet, the Church speaks with authority into the lives of many believers, and rightly so. So, when the Church remains open in a time like this and says “come and worship,” many people will listen and come because they believe it is safe to do so. Unfortunately, many of the faithful fall into the high risk categories for those susceptible to the virus. We must consider the extreme gravity of our decisions when we bear this sort of responsibility for our members.
As Christians, we are people of faith. As such, we are not “of” this world. And yet, we are very much in the world. Therefore, we need to both trust and be responsible. It is not an either/or, it is a both/and. We do not talk of “prayers” and then act carelessly. We pray and then we sanitize. We preach the Gospel while washing our hands. We love our neighbor without putting him at risk. Now is not the time to scoff at precautions or downplay the significance of prevention measures. We have an obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us.
At the same time, we do not overestimate precautionary measures, as though they are sufficient to keep us safe. Many things are beyond our ability to control, and times like these drive us to prayer and obedient trust. Therefore, we will not fear. Now is not the time to panic. We have all that we need from our heavenly Father, and we look to Him in these crazy times. We cast our anxieties on Him, and turn to Him in prayer. We pray for our churches – for our leaders – for our nation – and for the world. And we remember that no matter what happens, Jesus is Lord and we live with the all-prevailing “hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began (Titus 1:2).
When Martin Luther was dealing with The Black Death plague, he wrote these words that can help inform the way we approach things happening in our world right now:
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above (from the letter ‘Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague’).”
If our government were demanding we cease gathering for worship because it is worship, then we must obviously stand up and fight back, for like the Apostles before us, “We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). ” But that is not what is happening. I believe now is the time for us to obey God in honoring our elected leaders, who are trying to protect as many people as possible from this illness, which is deadly to those who fall into the high risk categories.
In this day of advanced technology, we have the opportunity to gather together in worship in a different way, over live streaming services. This method cannot replace physical gatherings on a permanent basis, but it is certainly a gathering of sorts, and we worship God not just physically, but in spirit. We need human contact, but in this time of necessary self-distancing, this type of virtual contact may suffice in ways that were simply not possible even a decade ago. Surely, God’s timing in this is perfect, too?
Pastors, I urge you to strongly consider encouraging your people not to meet together in person for the time being. Research new and different ways that you may still bring your people together. And pray for this season to pass. To be clear: I am not advocating neglecting to meet together, I am advocating new ways of meeting together when the standard way is not safe, or perhaps at some point even possible. And I am only advocating it for a time. Once we may safely return to our places of worship, we should flock to them as though we are being reunited with loved ones after a long separation.
Believers, I urge you to take prescribed safety measures seriously. If your home church is not live streaming, urge them to. If they cannot afford it, consider donating toward it. If it is still not possible, worship from the safety of your home at another church which is live streaming. However! Stay connected to your church, and continue to support it financially with your offerings! I am not advocating that you leave or transfer or in any way abandon your church family, because that is absolutely not what we should be doing in these dark times. But remember that we are one family under Christ, and we may visit each other without prejudice from time to time, encouraging each other all the while.
May these times pass quickly, and may this threat be contained. May we all be changed for the better in that we better realize what is most important, and may we all turn our eyes to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. Come, Lord Jesus, Amen.
*3/16 morning Note: Just since writing this, the CDC has recommended against gatherings of even 50 or more, which affects far more churches than the 250 noted above. For the sake of loving our neighbor, please consider alternate ways to gather in worship.
**3/16 afternoon Note: And now, the White House has recommended against all gatherings of just 10! Please be safe, be wise, and continue to act in love.
**3/16 evening Note: And now, Michigan’s Governor has banned gatherings over 50. Things keep changing, and we have to adjust quickly.