Church and Contagious Disease

The New York Times is reporting on church attendance and COVID-19. This headline is well written and grabs your attention: “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are Confronting Coronavirus Cases.” The subheading: “The virus has infiltrated Sunday services, church meetings and youth camps. More than 650 cases have been linked to religious facilities during the pandemic.”

Whoa! Sounds scary.

[Aside: Does the virus have agency? Infiltration is something I associate with government intelligence organizations and mischievous young people, the first in something like a Mission Impossible film, the second in a story like Ladybugs.]

Silliness at The Times

Back to the Times. Read the opening two paragraphs:

PENDLETON, Ore. — Weeks after President Trump demanded that America’s shuttered houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus are surging through churches across the country where services have resumed.

The virus has infiltrated Sunday sermons, meetings of ministers and Christian youth camps in Colorado and Missouri. It has struck churches that reopened cautiously with face masks and social distancing in the pews, as well as some that defied lockdowns and refused to heed new limits on numbers of worshipers.

The virus is surging. Infiltrating. It has struck. Churches have reopened apparently because of the president’s demands rather than because of convictions that predated Trump by millennia. While there have been some who have reopened cautiously, others have “defied” lockdowns and “refused” government orders.

Terry Mattingly of Get Religion writes that The Times misses the point, and that the story should focus on how religious leaders have responded to the pandemic and the effects the virus has had on religious congregations. Mattingly offers this analysis of the storyline:

Part I: It was perfectly valid to cover the relatively small number of religious groups — most of them totally independent Pentecostal and evangelical congregations — that were rebelling against government COVID-19 safety laws and recommendations (even when local officials were treating religious groups the same way they were treating stores, bars and other public institutions).

Part II: The bigger story was the cooperation that the leaders of most major religious institutions — from Catholic bishops to Southern Baptist megachurch leaders — were showing. In recent months, many of these religious groups have cautiously opened their doors to small groups of worships, once again following state and local guidelines.

The Times is reporting on a story, and the above themes are relevant and present. This is a disturbing trend. So what’s wrong with The Gray Lady’s reporting? Mattingly writes:

How does “650 cases” over several weeks that are said to be linked to services and events compare, statistically, with the overarching trends that are seeing COVID-19 cases rising rapidly. A week ago, Axios noted that new case numbers had hit 50,000 in one day. Might there be some other settings that are more important than churches in this surge, just looking at the numbers? Oh, wait. Might this have something to do with news templates linked to Donald Trump, white evangelicals and “religious liberty” and all that?

The problem is that The Times has written a politics story masquerading as a religion story, rather than a religion story with a relevant political parallel.

Silliness in the Pews

While I’m on this story, I want to draw out one more quote from the article in The Times. The report closes with the following:

Mr. Satterwhite, the pastor in Oregon [mentioned earlier in the article], said that scrutiny had fallen unfairly on churches, while businesses with outbreaks did not face the same backlash. “I think that there is an effort on the part of some to use things like this to try to shut churches down,” he said, adding that he appreciated Mr. Trump’s supportive remarks about churches being essential.

When weighing his responsibility as a faith leader, Mr. Satterwhite said, he returned to his beliefs. “My personal belief is, I have faith in God,” he said. “If God wants me to get Covid, I’ll get Covid. And if God doesn’t want me to get Covid, I won’t.”

My response to Pastor Satterwhite is twofold.

First, even if a church ceases public gatherings for worship for a period of time, there are other ways to remain together as the body, ministering to the needs of congregants, praying for one another, shepherding one another, teaching, and drawing together resources financial and otherwise in puruit of shared mission. A government order cannot shut down a church. It can create challenges. It may result in disbanding. But not necessarily.

I know some Christians view Sunday worship as a divine command, an extension of the Sabbath principle applied to Sunday, the day upon which Jesus was raised from the dead. But I don’t think it is that simple. I think weekly worship is wise and meant to be edifying, and that Christians should continue meeting together regularly as instructed in Hebrews 10:25. I think that the marks of the church include what is described in Acts 2:42-47: worship, instruction, fellowship, evangelism, and stewarship. I think gathering together is a spiritual discipline, creating occasions where the people of the church can exercise obedience to the “one another” commands of the New Testament. But I also think that in the midst of a crisis like the one we face at the present moment, the church can discern other avenues of continued connection and faithfulness, and respond with wisdom.

Second, the dramatic flourish with which Satterwhite closes, read charitably, is meant to reflect a strong confidence in the sovereignty of God. It seems to echo the sentiment of “faith over fear” that I have heard so often in these past days. But faith and fear are not our only biblical and theological categories. The only fear we should maintain should be fear of the Lord. That is the beginning of wisdom. And if fear of the Lord leads us to desire to be the best possible steward of our lives and the lives of others, we will not ignore the best medical and scientific insights that might help us from spreading this disease.

While it may be true that God holds the power of life and death, I will not put the Lord to the test by asking those who have been infected to breath on me, nor will I brazenly breath on others if I am a carrier of the contagion. I’ll distance, where a mask, and love my neighbor as myself.

This Plyo Box is a Work of Art

plyo box
Bears, Royals, and Chiefs

One of the projects I’ve tackled during COVID-19 was building a 3-in-1 plyometric box. Here is the blueprint I used.

I bought a sheet of plywood at The Home Depot. I brought my supplies home, and my next door neighbor, Lance Lowe, used his table saw to make the cuts.

Cowboys, Rangers, and Jayhawks

Due to distancing measures, I dropped the board outside Lance’s garage, and he returned the pieces soon thereafter.

Because of what Baylor has meant to you in the past, because of what she will mean to you in the future, oh, my students, have a care for her. Build upon the foundations here the great school of which I have dreamed, so that she may touch and mold the lives of future generations and help to fit them for life here and hereafter. To you seniors of the past, of the present, of the future I entrust the care of Baylor University. To you I hand the torch. My love be unto you and my blessing be upon you.
– Samuel Palmer Brooks

Molly helped me assemble the box.

“We did it our way, baby!” – Barry Switzer
“I didn’t spend the night with the trophy. I spent it with my trophy wife.” – Andy Reid

After I put it together, Lance told me he’d be happy to brand the box with logo art from six of my favorite teams. I dropped the box on his driveway, and this is how it came back.

“Maybe when we get home, I can go to the third-base tree and pick another third baseman.” – Ned Yost
“It’s time.” – Nelson Cruz

Lance does all kinds of cool stuff like this. Check out his business, and put in an order for a cornhole set.

Communion Online?

pexels-photo-3826126
Photo by Jonas Ferlin on Pexels.com

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.

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.

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.

Legitimate Concern

I’ve done curriculum development for the Urban Alternative, and I’ve respected Pastor Tony Evans for years. We need to be wise, deliberate, caring, and attentive to God during this time of crisis. We’ll pull through. We’ll be OK. We have a Father.