During the Crisis, Establish a Rule

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In 516 A. D., Benedict of Nursia developed a rule of life for monks who were living together in community. It’s known as The Rule of St. Benedict. This idea has been applied to our moment in books like Ken Shigematsu’s God in my Everything and Justin Earley’s The Common Rule.

Our rhythms have been disrupted. We’re out of routine. This presents a chance to evaluate our commitments, to adjust our priorities, and to develop a new structure. Blake Sherman had this to say about utilizing a rule during the pandemic. What practices could you establish? What habits can you build in that could sustain and strengthen your life with God?

Are you structuring your days differently because of the coronavirus? How so? And are you giving attention to how you direct your energies toward your life with God? What are you discovering?

Communion Online?

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For Religion News Service, Jack Jenkins writes, “with churchgoers still holed up in their homes to avoid infection for weeks and even months to come, Christian leaders are starting to ask: Is Communion appropriate for cyberspace?”

Jenkins’ report includes quotations from Christian leaders from a diversity of denominations, and I’ll summarize several of his findings. For Catholics, the doctrine of transubstantiation presents a substantial hurdle. The ELCA discouraged online communion, and is viewing this as a teaching moment about the Lord’s Meal. The PCUSA said no to online communion, and then reversed course, saying yes, since we’re in an “emergency” situation. The United Methodist Church is citing conclusions reached by a 2014 task force who studied this question and recommended communion be observed among a physical, gathered assembly, while now making allowances for regional conferences and their Bishops to observe communion online. Bishop Ken Carter of Florida called this “an extreme situation,” and granted the clergy in his region latitude in meeting pastoral needs.

This weekend my local fellowship, First Methodist Church Waco, is observing communion Sunday. We’ve encouraged our people to prepare, to think forward to Sunday and to gather bread and juice, so that in our homes we might observe the Lord’s Meal together while physically dispersed. As crises tend to do, theological convictions are laid bare. And yet, there is a great deal of framing left. There is a grammar that is yet to be established. We have to explain what we are doing, and why it isn’t ideal, even though it might be the right idea.

When we observe the Lord’s Supper, we do so as the gathered communion of Jesus Christ, remembering the first observance of this ritual on the night that Jesus was betrayed. In that room, there was sorrow and grief and confusion, there was closeness and love and fellowship, there was adoration and reverence and, sadly, betrayal and misunderstanding. There was, we might observe, a crisis. The immediate crisis was that of Jesus’ impending betrayal and death. But the greater crisis, the one preceding the immediate crisis, was that of broken fellowship between God and humanity. God, using a surprising and unconventional means, took on the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and bridged the gap in the breaking of his body and in the pouring out of his blood, all in fulfillment of the Scriptures.

I argue strongly in favor of the Lord’s Supper as an observance that is to be conducted with persons gathered physically as a local fellowship. This belief is grounded in convictions concerning the nature of the church, embodiment, and the importance of public witness. But I also recognize that each time a local fellowship celebrates the meal that Jesus gave us, we also recall that we are gathered as part of a wider fellowship–the company of the called that gives praise and glory to our king across the boundaries of time and space–the church universal.

In “normal times,” whatever those are, I think churches should celebrate the Supper as a gathered local fellowship. That is the ideal. But seeing that the gap between the real and the ideal has widened, we’ll do the best we can with what we have. It should not be lost on us that the fact that many churches are seeking ways to observe communion online is an expression of the reality that we are together seeking God. Perhaps this crisis is revealing to us that the world isn’t quite as disenchanted as we thought, and that God can still be encountered in the breaking of bread and in the sharing of a common cup.

Online Church: It’s the Relationships

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This then is the one thing everyone needs to know about online church: It’s not the technology. It’s the relationships.

[ . . . ]

Today, we tend to think of a building as church. Likewise, people tend to think the online platform is church but neither of these are church. Church is a localized assembly of the people of God, dwelling, with a task.

I was so concerned about this that I listed all of the ways people would confuse technology with online church (i.e., the building for the body). [In SimChurch] I wrote:

It is critical that we do not confuse an online church with, say, a website of a real-world church. An online church is not a website (building or place), a podcast (ritualized institution), or a blog (fellowship or activity). An online church is a place where people professing to have faith in Jesus Christ gather regularly to be in meaningful community appointed to build up the kingdom—or more specifically, an online church is the confessing people gathering in a synthetic world.

When my pastor called to speak to me about online church, this was the advice I offered: Don’t worry about the technology right now (yes, it has to work, and be decent, but most people will understand if it’s not perfect), focus on building connections between people. Focus on making sure people can respond to worship, and respond to each other.

– Douglas Estes, writing for The Center for Pastor Theologians, “The One Things that Makes or Breaks Online Church

The reason that I think my online Sunday school and online teaching experiences have been moderately successful thus far is due to the relationships that were already established prior to the outbreak. The creative challenge before church leaders, I think, is to consider how online technology can deepen existing connections while, secondarily, opening avenues for connection with those who are a new to a particular, localized expression of the body of Christ.

Thanks, H-E-B

Michael Leas, stock controller, store number 351, Edna: My overnight crew, they’re just coming in, and it seems like they’re ready. They just ask me what I need them to do. I haven’t had very many complaints from the guys or anything. It’s been really nice. You can tell that they understand it’s not our fault; this is just something that’s happening.

Craig Boyan: We’re not in a super glamorous job. We have a lot of hard-working people doing hard jobs. But there’s a strong sense of pride at H-E-B. We describe ourselves as a purpose-driven company, and we’re at our best amid times of crisis. There’s a great sense among H-E-B partners that they’re doing what’s needed to take care of Texans, and that keeps the morale very high.

[ . . . ]

Tina James: It’s not lost on us that we are offering an essential public function, and it’s not lost on our partners, either. And they continue to come to work with a very positive attitude, and continue to serve above and beyond even their normal hours. That never ceases to amaze me. We are very fortunate in that H-E-B has a chief medical officer as well as a medical board, so we have resources at our fingertips to offer up medical advice and guidance to our partners. So we play a unique role in our partners’ lives that allows them to have some comfort and calm so they can turn around and take care of our customers.

[ . . . ]

Craig Boyan: The spirit of Texans and their treating H-E-B partners with the respect and pride that they do makes us feel fantastic. I drove by a church the other day in San Antonio that had a sign out front that said ‘Thank an H-E-B checker.” We’ve seen an outpouring of support for our partners and truck drivers that gives us a great sense of pride.

– Dan Solomon and Paula Forbes, in Texas Monthly, “Inside the Story of How H-E-B Planned for the Pandemic

I don’t often give much thought to how food and other supplies are delivered and then made available by my local grocer. But I’ve been thinking about it more lately.

Thanks, H-E-B.

Lament is an Answer

No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t? Supposing real human wisdom doesn’t mean being able to string together some dodgy speculations and say, “So that’s all right then?” What if, after all, there are moments such as T. S. Eliot recognized in the early 1940s, when the only advice is to wait without hope, because we’d be hoping for the wrong thing?

Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief. But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world. It’s bad enough facing a pandemic in New York City or London. What about a crowded refugee camp on a Greek island? What about Gaza? Or South Sudan?

[ . . . ]

It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope. New wisdom for our leaders? Now there’s a thought.

– N. T. Wright, in Time Magazine, “Christianity Offers No Answer About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To

The headline is misleading, as headlines often are, and I doubt (and hope!) that N. T. Wright did not pen it himself. Wright argues that Christians do not have an explanation for the coronavirus, but they do have an answer. That answer is lament.

To offer lament is to cry out in anguish and pain. It is a means of expressing grief, of naming injustice, and declaring one’s suffering. The Bible has countless examples of lament, particularly in the Psalms.

N. T. Wright argues that Enlightenment rationalism is the reason that we long for explanations. I suspect the human proclivity for designating attribution to God or another source is much older than that. For Christian people, our response is to refrain from explanations, and to leverage ancient wisdom. That wisdom is lament, to humble oneself and to confess that there are some things that are beyond comprehension but in need of divine intervention. To lament is to cry out for mercy, and to hope for deliverance.

Thankful.

What am I thankful for?

Epidemiologists.

Virologists.

Medical experts.

Journalists.

A functioning government.

Public servants. Police, fire, and government officials.

Global connectivity.

The internet.

Family, my network of friends, and brothers and sisters in faith.

A God who brings order to chaos, is no stranger to suffering, and who descends with us into the valley of the shadow.

We’re in the early days of a crisis, and thus far the positive waves, creative spirit, and general neighborliness have been encouraging and inspiring. Here is another source of uplift:

 

The past few weeks have been chaotic, exhausting, and anxiety inducing. There are legitimate reasons for concern. There will be tremendous challenges ahead.

But as I’ve reflected on this pandemic, I have felt more amazement than fear, more gratitude than dread, more wonderment than despair. We live in a moment in time in which the earliest outbreaks of this disease could be noticed, diagnosed, and reported upon. Information about COVID-19 could then be disseminated across the globe.

Television and other media could provide imagery indicating to us the seriousness with which we should consider this disease.  Radio, the web, social media feeds, newspapers, and television could be used to get the word out. Institutions–government, educational, religious–could be mobilized.

Some, but not all, jobs could shift to remote work. For jobs that could not be done remotely, businesses have been making hard decisions about how best to care for their employees, and government officials have been working diligently to enact measures that would help those most deeply affected by the outbreak.

Consider, for a moment, being alive during  a previous moment in time when a global pandemic occured. Imagine, for a moment, seeing your neighbors become ill. A few appear to have nothing more than the common cold. But many are devastated by a hidden, invisible disease. Communities continue to function as normal, cities and towns carry on with the normal rhythms of commerce, religious communities continue to gather unabated. Neighbors become sick and die, funerals go on as normal. Trade continues, travel continues. As death counts increase, information moves from place to place and country to country, but more slowly than the disease. By the time immunity has been built, the disease has run its course, and the majority of those most vulnerable to such a disease have died. Only in retrospect can the human race assess the severity of the disease.

Granted, in a previous age, the globe was not as connected; movement was not near as fluid as it is today, and diseases were not as quickly spread. But they did spread, and information about those diseases did not move nearly as quick, nor were the  treatments available nearly as effective.

The American economy will suffer a setback due to this disease, as will countless other global ventures. People have lost their jobs, or will see a decrease in work (there are individuals in my family who are facing this reality). There are people who have already died due to this disease.

School have been disrupted. Some states have halted instruction for the year. My children are receiving online instruction; the courses I teach at Truett have moved online.

Churches may not get to celebrate Easter together in their sacred spaces. Our congregation is considering a return to terrestrial radio to remain connected to those who are home bound and without connection to the internet. We’ve mourned the death of wonderful people who have been pillars in our congregation, and then been further saddened in observing the recommendation for restricting funeral gatherings to ten people or less.

Psalm 144:4 says, “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.” James 4:14 compares our life to a mist. Isaiah observes our flesh is like grass, springing up, then withering, a metaphor that is picked up again in 1 Peter. Life’s brevity has long been sobering for any who would consider it. Our days pass, and they pass quickly.

Psalm 90:12 reminds us, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom,” and 2 Timothy 1:7 states, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”

In these days, I’m reminded that life has always been fragile and our reality has always been contingent. It doesn’t take much to disrupt us. But as a person of faith, I have resources. I have reminders of my own mortality and the promise of eternal life. There are resources for wisdom and courage and admonitions to extend compassion, care, and love. I am reminded that God will never leave nor forsake us.

In Jesus, I encounter a man who was (and is) well acquainted with grief. I am reminded that Jesus led and leads our way as a servant, as a person who put the needs of others before his own, and who calls us to abandon all–even our very lives–for his sake and the sake of the gospel.

The question, then, that I now face concerns the work that is mine to do, and the ways that I am to serve.

To whom is God calling me, and how am I to faithfully answer the call? How am I to yield myself to the Spirit of God and to the divine leading, so that during days in which uncertainty prevails and chaos abounds, I might be a person in whom the peace of Christ dwells richly, and the Word of Christ abounds?

I do not yet know the answers to those questions, at least not in full. I am willing to find out. The finding out will be in the crisis.

Knowing this, in the days to come, I’ll seek to be faithful to God, concerned for my neighbor, steadfast in faith, casting out all fear, relying on grace, remaining in hope, diligent in love, trusting in spirit, bold in witness, and calm in chaos.

I began in thankfulness. Psalm 18:2 offers one more thing for which I can be thankful: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”

Thanks be to God. Lord, deliver us.

Crisis: It Reveals Theology

I like this analogy by Cory Wilson:

A theologically uninformed pastor seeking to navigate these choppy waters is comparable to a first-year medical student being placed in charge of the COVID-19 response for Cleveland Clinic. Theological training and formation for pastoral ministry matters. Especially in days like these. There is a wealth of truth reaped among the disciplines of pastoral training that provide strength as pastors hold their hands to the helm.

Wilson explains ways biblical theology, systematic theology, church history, global theology, and missiology all have importance for pastoral ministry in a time of crisis. I would add spiritual theology as well. Wilson states (in the quote I pulled) that formation for pastoral ministry matters. Yes it does. Formation in congregational ministry matters, too.

The best time to prepare for a crisis is when there isn’t one. How well has the church  been prepared? Equipped? How mature are we? That point of reflection is vital not only for congregants, but for pastors. There is a virtuous circle here, I think: healthy churches are shepherded by healthy pastors, and healthy pastors are fostered by healthy churches, with all dependent on the Lord, foremost, as the Great Physician and healer of all. Richard Baxter, in The Reformed Pastor, writes:

See that the work of saving grace be thoroughly wrought in your own souls. Take heed to yourselves, lest you be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others, and be strangers to the effectual working of that gospel which you preach; and lest, while you proclaim to the world the necessity of a Savior, your own hearts should neglect him, and you should miss of an interest in him and his saving benefits. Take heed to yourselves, lest you perish, while you call upon others to take heed of perishing; and lest you famish yourselves while you prepare food for them. Though there is a promise of shining as the stars, to those ‘who turn many to  righteousness,’ that is but on supposition that they are first turned to it themselves. Their own sincerity in the faith is the condition of their glory, simply considered, though their great ministerial labors may be a condition of the promise of their greater glory. Many have warned others that they come not to that place of torment, while yet they hastened to it themselves: many a preacher is now in hell, who hath a hundred times called upon his hearers to use the utmost care and diligence to escape it. Can any reasonable man imagine that God should save men for offering salvation to others, while they refuse it themselves; and for telling others those truths which they themselves neglect and abuse? Many a tailor goes in rags, that maketh costly clothes for others; and many a cook scarcely licks his fingers, when he hath dressed for others the most costly dishes. Believe it, brethren, God never saved any man for being a preacher, nor because he was an able preacher; but because he was a justified, sanctified man, and consequently faithful in his Master’s work. Take heed, therefore, to ourselves first, that you be that which you persuade your hearers to be, and believe that which you persuade them to believe, and heartily entertain that Savior whom you offer to them. He that bade you love your neighbors as yourselves, did imply that you should love yourselves, and not hate and destroy yourselves and them.

Bad theology does harm. Good theology gives life. Pastors must not only be theologically informed, but spiritually formed, taking “heed…that you be that which you persuade your hearers to be, and believe that which you persuade them to believe, and heartily entertain that Savior whom you offer to them. He that bade you love your neighbors as yourselves, did imply that you should love yourselves, and not hate and destroy yourselves and them.”

Cory Wilson writes, “How you shepherd during these days will force reveal your theology. As the curtain is pulled back, may you not be caught standing naked.” Let us take heed, then, first of ourselves.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

But if there is a silver lining in this crisis, it may be that the virus is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used — to connect with one another, share information and resources, and come up with collective solutions to urgent problems. It’s the healthy, humane version of digital culture we usually see only in schmaltzy TV commercials, where everyone is constantly using a smartphone to visit far-flung grandparents and read bedtime stories to kids.

Already, social media seems to have improved, with more reliable information than might have been expected from a global pandemic. And while the ways we’re substituting for in-person interaction aren’t perfect — over the next few months in America, there may be no phrase uttered more than “Can someone mute?” — we are seeing an explosion of creativity as people try to use technology as a bridge across physical distances.

– Kevin Roose in The New York Times, “The Coronavirus is Showing Us How to Live Online

Roose’s claim that “the virus is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used” assumes that the internet’s reason for being at its genesis was to foster connection, sharing, and problem solving. Then, the trolls moved in and divided us, unleashing chaos and infecting all of us, turning the web into an accelerant for hatred and strife. Now, a crisis is moving us back toward paradise. The internet has now been restored, and is being redeemed–for the moment.

Creation, fall, and restoration, precipitated by a crisis. There’s a mythic structure to this story.

But that misunderstands the nature of the internet, or of any broadcasting tool, which is more of an amplifier and signal booster. Tools like the web show us what was already there. During periods of crisis, we fixate on expressions of creativity and compassion. We look for light in the darkness. During periods of stability and comfort, we fixate on the problems and we increase in our despair. We notice the darkness rather than the light.

This shouldn’t be surprising to Christians that a crisis would precipitate a shift in the online mood. We claim, after all, that human beings are created in the image of God, and though fallen, God’s grace still is active even in those who may be alienated or cut off from fellowship. The clues we experience–our longing for connection, our desire to care, our compassion for those that are hurting–are resonances that point us to the divine, to God. When the normal means of pursuing those longings are removed, we seek other avenues to meet them.

We’re marveling at how this global pandemic is causing people to connect, care, and solve problems. But perhaps we should reflect as to why, apart from such a crisis, things get so nasty. The crisis draws our attention to the light. But in times of stability, perhaps we should be more focused on casting out darkness.

Is a Livestream a Worship Service?

As we walk through this season of church under quarantine, I think our approach should be much the same as John’s as we instruct our congregations. We ought to pursue continued communication and teaching using the technology available to us. I thank the Lord that we have been able to gather to watch sermons on Sunday morning. Our family has benefited from short updates from our pastors on Instagram and Facebook. I’ve appreciated the chance to FaceTime with students at our seminary. But we all recognize that these interactions are limited.

We can see each other, but we can’t be with each other. There is a big difference, and we feel it every time we log on. I’ve also noticed that many pastors are preaching shorter sermons and sending out short updates. This is because we recognize that a lecture on a screen is, quite frankly, not the best medium for teaching and preaching complex theology or calling people to deep reflection on the gospel. Since we are not gathering as the people of God communing with each other and the risen Christ, I don’t think we should call our Sunday livestreams a “worship service.” We can use a livestream to call our people to worship and to teach from God’s Word, but we have to be honest enough to say that the television in our living room is designed for amusement, not for deep musing on the things of God, let alone a replacement of the means of grace that God has given to his gathered people.

– Chris Bruno writing for The Center for Pastor Theologians, “Real Presence and Social Distancing

Bruno’s underlying point is the correct one: what we’re experiencing now under quarantine is not the ideal means of gathering together as the people of God. The television, the tablet, the screen is a layer of mediation we are better without. But for the present moment, it is the best medium we have.

Contrary to Bruno, I think it is permissible to name what we are doing via livestream or prerecorded webcast a “worship service,” for it is an avenue by which we can be invited to worship God. But it differs from “church” in the sense that the people called church are literally “the called out ones,” the assembly, the gathered fellowship of the saints. Yes, the church is bound together invisibly as a spiritual reality. The church is universal, dispersed across time and space and geography. But it is also expressed locally and personally, physically and tangibly, when bodies come together, joining in one voice, to lift up praises to God and give thanks for the manifold gifts we have received through the gospel.

Some of my earliest forays into writing about church leadership and ministry was to argue against online “church” for the very reasons Bruno cites. I was thinking about this stuff ten years ago. I was a strong proponent of presence as witness, congregation as demonstration, and baptism and the Lord’s supper as vital events for the people of God and in time, acts of testimony, formation, and narration that remind, renew, and root us in the good news that Christ has come, died, redeemed, risen, and now reigns as we await for that day he will return.

In moments like the one we’re in, let’s see online vehicles for gathering and connection as temporary measures that can sustain us until such a time we can once again gather face to face. Let’s develop a deeper appreciation for human connection, for flesh and blood realities, for encountering the other.

Via digital interface, we only see one another in part. When gathered, we see one another face to face, body to body. Via the internet, we know only in part, but when gathered, we are more fully known, until that day comes in which we shall know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12). The web helps us to remain connected. When we reconnect, present and in the flesh, let us then rejoice.