Another weekend has passed, another Sunday, day one hundred and something since we were told to hunker down and stay out of church. Here in our neck of the woods, our church is still closed. Privately, we’ve gotten together with friends for some backyard worship, we’ve of course done things on our own in our living room, our car, etc. The beauty of the nature of God is that He is of course always with us, and whether washing dishes or formally in a service, He is there and we honor Him.
The eagerness I felt at the end of May about churches reopening has faded, however. I hoped for a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, a cautious return to our ability to gather. Now as we approach the end of summer and back to school, I sense things have been yet again reset back to zero. By now, if a church isn’t back, I’m not sure it will be anytime soon.
Some churches are open, and I tip my hat to them. Lots of small congregations have begun to meet again. Some of the big ones have figured it out. Some remain victims of circumstance, at the mercy of their local commissioners, or governors. Just as our church was about to reopen, much of the pastoral staff contracted the virus. The enemy is relentless in this area no doubt.
This past week Pastor John MacArthur published a powerful statement regarding his intent to defy California mandates and open his large Grace Community Church. Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church is worthy of a read. Yesterday, he followed through with that promise. The fact that this was such a controversial move, one that many Christians did not support, reminds us just how powerful our modern-day Caesar’s actually are.
Is the church indeed just a ticking COVID bomb waiting to blow up if we do start gathering again? Is it the opposite of loving your neighbor if we were to attempt to actually meet and (gasp!) sing together?
Possibly. There are no guarantees in this at all. We seem to forget that all the other places pose a risk as well, but it’s a risk we are willing to take. We need to buy food. We miss our parents. Our children need some friends around. Do we have so little faith that the Church could figure these things out? If Wal-Mart can place little arrows on the floor and install sneeze guards… why can’t the church also take safety measures?
You see, as the months drag on, and as it becomes clear this virus isn’t going anywhere anytime soon… and a distinct pattern has emerged. Churchgoers for the most part don’t mind following a new set of rules… we mind when things become arbitrary and hypocritical.
I’ve asked this question before and I will keep asking it: when does the church reach that point where enough is enough? While I value and respect the need for safety and for things to be in their proper place… I can’t help but remind myself that church has never really been completely safe. Not for any of us. Not in any age.
Just prior to the COVID outbreaks, a mentally ill man managed to walk his way on stage at our church while our pastor was in the middle of a sermon and stood next to him for a couple very tense minutes. He started making demands and taking his clothes off. Let me tell you, I imagined the worst. I know that at that moment hundreds of congregants were silently praying for our pastor’s safety and for a calm resolution. And God is good. It was dealt with professionally and swiftly.
So when I see announcements like this…
I utterly cringe. No thank you. While well-intentioned, this stinks. We don’t need quieter churches. We don’t need to tone it down so the county commissioners will smile upon us and bless us by ‘allowing’ us to meet. Put a mask on and sing already. Take precautions, be smart, and let people gather.
You may have seen this excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ essay “On Living in the Atomic Age” circulating around:
In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948)
I love reading the words of Christians who have gone before us and experienced great hardships, but managed to glorify God regardless of difficulty. Part of our difficulty is that we are an entire society who believes they are the first to experience any kind of challenge to their lives. I try to remember what our parents, grand-parents and great-grand-parents lived through, and I’m immediately reminded that we have become quite soft.
Indeed we need to be careful about “exaggerating the novelty of our situation.” I am not downplaying the seriousness of this pandemic. I am asking us to look at the bigger picture here, one the Church has faced for millennia and survived: trials and tribulations. Stop exaggerating the novelty of it (not the seriousness or realness) but the idea that nobody has ever had to deal with this before. No, the threat of an A-bomb is not the same as a virus. Different precautions need to be taken. But dear Church… how long will we continue to forgo our gathering together in the name of perfect safety? The internet is indeed a tool to be used, but it is not a replacement for fellowship. While some may be able to gather with friends, many others can’t, won’t, or simply don’t.
While some pastors are simply delaying meeting until things magically get ‘better’ some have completely called off the rest of the year (here’s looking at you, Andy Stanley)! The supporters of all this (and there are many, I realize I am in a minority here) tell us we need stop being so selfish, wait for this to pass, stay home and worship, and realize that true Christian persecution does not lie in your church being cancelled because of a legitimate pandemic. The bratty, American evangelicals don’t know what persecution is! Perhaps that’s true. But we are getting a taste of it right now, and if we continue to capitulate to each new arbitrary regulation, I assure you, not much will be left to return to when and if it is ever the ‘right time’.
The reason so many are standing with Pastor MacArthur on this is because he is asking the deeper question: what is the motivation behind all these rulings, what’s the big picture here? We can’t be so naive as to believe it’s the benevolent government just wanting us to all stay well. If that was the case, many, many other things would be different.
The funeral schedule for Representative John Lewis of Alabama is so long it would take me four screenshots to capture it all. Look at these crowds and tell me again why exactly I can’t go stand in church? People should be celebrated. Lives should be honored. But only the ones deemed culturally important? If you’ve experienced the death of a loved one recently, you well know they are not afforded the same respect. Forget large gatherings, people can’t even hold small funerals. In our efforts to equalize our society, we are ironically setting up a whole new system of inequality.
One day we are going to regret blindly yielding the power up to these busybodies. Sadly, I do not have high hopes of returning to church anytime soon. If they aren’t open by now, the impending return to school and fall election season aren’t going to do us any favors in that area.
There is no one size fits all solution. We understand Jesus isn’t four walls and a building. We recognize that God’s power isn’t dependent on proximity. We proclaim that the Church is indeed always ‘open’ because the Lord’s disciples walk the earth and preach and live out what Jesus taught. But let’s not pretend that bigger forces aren’t at play here. Let’s not sit idly by while our cities burn with unrest and conjure up some rationale as to why we are still sitting at home on our couches.
So indeed, Christ, not Caesar is head of our church. We are not reckless disregarders of the law of the land, not by a long shot. Christians want a stable society. It’s others who do not. At the end of the day, I have far more respect for a pastor who wants to continue gathering and worshipping than I do for one who prematurely cancels church for the rest of the year under the guise of safety.
Martin Luther remained in his Black Plague infested town while others fled, not because he had a death wish, but because they needed someone to speak truth through tragedy. He talked of those with a ‘milk faith’ who understandably fled the scene, and he didn’t condemn them, but rather he yearned for a more stable, meatier faith to see him through.
Therefore 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 infect 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 fo me. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God. If the people in a city were to show themselves bold in their faith when an neighbors need so demands, and cautious when no emergency exists, then death would indeed be moderate. But if some are too panicky and desert their neighbors in their plight, then the devil has a heyday. On both counts this is a grievous offense to God and to man – here it is tempting God; there it is bringing man into despair.Martin Luther
Friends, I don’t say this flippantly, but we are not in a Black Plague. In running from danger, sometimes we run right into the arms of the very curse we are trying to avoid. In facing things head-on, we may just find ourselves in a new but joyous position. We as a body are bound to one another, and we are all united under Christ.
We will be blamed regardless. We will be persecuted regardless. Nero blamed the Christians when Rome burned, we should expect nothing less.
Understanding that truth, we need to accept some risk in the world and continue being the Church. Not in a sanitized bubble, but face to face, masked if necessary. The enemy delights in making us irrational, fearful and hateful toward one another.
He does far more than any plague ever could.