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.

Paul W. Powell: Learning from the Long Walk

I was crawling through the Truett Seminary chapel archives and came across a message from Paul W. Powell, offered November 5, 2013. Here is a link to the video, and here is a link to the audio. I wish I had an easy way to embed the files, but Baylor’s hosting service doesn’t provide code I can easily integrate into my site. The message is titled, “Learning from the Long Walk.”

Acts 2:14-36, The Paul W. Powell Chapel at Truett Seminary

Brother Paul was pastor of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas for seventeen years, my home church. Paul baptized me and, years later, preached the charge on the occasion of my ordination on April 10, 2005 at the First Baptist Church of Allen, Texas, pastored then and now by the Reverend Chad Selph. Paul died at the age of 83 in December of 2016.

While digging around the internet doing a little bit of background research on Paul, I came across a 2005 “Pastoral Letter” he wrote while serving as Dean of the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Here’s a quick story he told:

Baptists are people of the Book. The Bible is the rule and guide for our faith and practice. We have a Baptist Faith and Message, but it is not a creed. No one has to sign it; no one is forced to subscribe to it. It is simply a statement of what Baptists generally believe.

We claim no creed but the Bible. Several years ago Richard Jackson gave me a Bible that had embossed on the front of it in gold letters, “The Baptist Faith and Message.” He had it right.

One more reason I will continue to be a fan of Paul’s.

Scroll up and listen to his message. It’s gold.

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.

Patient Observation

One of the best pieces of advice was from my Year Two teacher, on how to draw a bicycle: “Spend twice as much time _looking_ at it than drawing it”.

I apply that to so many areas. More time listening than talking. More observing than doing. The outcome will always be better.

Anna Debenham

This bit of wisdom appeared in a newsletter I receive. Drawing, classically defined, is learning to see. Before putting graphite to paper, before making a mark, when the page is blank, whether in the mind’s eye or in the reality resting fifteen feet away, we must look, and not only look, but see.

My drawing instructor, Chad Hines, would have us put what we see in boxes. He would have us break down what we drew into its constituent parts. To see the lines, see the curves, see the ellipses and circles. He would encourage us to hold the pencil lightly, differently, to make marks that were easy, light, and then to look, and to look again. He observed that sometimes the false lines reveal the true. What you thought you were seeing was not actually what was there. As you draw, you look upon your object, and then you look upon your sketch, and you compare. You adjust. You try to draw what you see, so others can see it too. Drawing is always illusion. The drawing is not the thing that was seen. But the drawing can be true. It can accurately represent a moment in time, an object in reality. But only if first you really look, and really see.

I agree with Anna. We’d all be better off, I think, if we spent more time observing than doing. Looking. Listening. Slowly. Patiently. With thought. With intention.

Next time you are ready to act, next time you jump to speak, pause. Look. Observe. Think. Let a beat or two pass. Then, make a mark. Speak a word. Be truthful.

Disciplined Reading

Do not say…that one or two books is sufficient for instructing the soul. After all, even the bee collects honey not from one or two flowers only, but from many. Thus also he who reads the books of the Holy Fathers is instructed by one in faith or in right thinking, by another in silence and prayer, by another in obedience and humility and patience, by another in self-reproach and in love for God and neighbor; and, to speak briefly, from many books of the Holy Fathers a man is instructed in life according to the Gospel.

– Paisius Velichkovsky

Paisius Velichkovsky was an Eastern Orthodox monk and theologian. His observation is a rather simple one: we must learn wisdom from the bee, gathering wisdom diligently, broadly, and with great discipline. He exhorts us to read from the Holy Fathers, from the saints of old, who can instruct us in the Gospel and in Christian living. Our souls, being great things, need great nourishment. Like the bee, the gathering should take place daily, not from a paltry collection of sources, but from a diversity of literary riches.

I like to read and study. Not everyone is like me. Thank God. But if I could offer one bit of encouragement to others who, like me, are following Jesus, it would be to read a little more often than you do now. Begin with the Bible, particularly if Scripture is something you neglect. Scripture is a dietary staple. But then add to that a work of theology, or a historical work about a person who has been important to the Christian tradition.

Pay particular mind to your denominational heritage, if you have one (if you are a Methodist, read Wesley, if you are a Presbyterian, read Calvin, etc., etc.). I’d like the Baptists I know to be better Baptists, the Methodists I know to exemplify the best of their tradition, and on and on. Consider doing as Velichkovsky recommends: read the Church Fathers. Read Augustine. Read Athanasius. Read the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The old stuff is profoundly rich.

Choose one or two or three great theologians or renowned saints. Get to know them well, even if a little bit at a time. Pick up their work. Buy a book and learn about their lives. Read each day. Choose wisely. Stick with it. Observe. Learn. Apply. Grow.

Save More.

The government is open and operating, for now, but during the shutdown we heard federal employees couldn’t miss a paycheck and that the gridlock in Washington was keeping workers from paying bills, buying groceries, and taking care of basic necessities.

Tyler Cowen wrote a column at Bloomberg that caught my eye (it was featured on the opinion page of my local paper, the Waco Tribune-Herald). Cowen claimed that one of the big lessons of the shutdown was “Americans should be saving more.” It can be done. He writes:

Indeed a higher savings rate is possible, and not just for the wealthy. Most Mormons in the U.S., for example, manage to tithe at least 10 percent of their incomes. This suggests it is possible to curtail one’s consumption without losing the best things in life. Mormons also tend to have especially large families, making tithing all the more difficult. If Mormons can tithe so much, is it so impossible for the rest of us, including government employees, to save more?

There is also a new “gospel of savings” in the U.S., being led by such renowned (but non-mainstream) figures as Dave Ramsey and Mr. Money Mustache. They reach millions of Americans, imploring them to strip down their consumption to essentials and to save a much higher percentage of their incomes, sometimes 20 percent or more. Ramsey wrote a column giving advice to unpaid federal workers, including “sell stuff” and to cancel Netflix.

Americans should be saving more, and spending less. Cowen’s column has several interesting numbers about the current savings rate of Americans as compared to past generations, as well as how Americans compare with other countries. The decision to save isn’t only determined by income level, but also by cultural values. Simplicity, thrift, frugality, industriousness, wisdom, and self-discipline all factor in our ability to save. We talk about these values in the Christian community. We do not always teach them diligently and carefully enough, thus helping congregants to actually form the kind of character that will assist them in being generous and wise with their money.

Do you save? Do you have an emergency fund, set aside for a rainy day?

It’s a wise idea.

Carrying the Old, Making the New

In his essay “Equipment for Living,” Michael Robbins asks, “What are we doing with all these films and songs and novels and poems and pictures? Why keep making them? Don’t we have enough, or too much?”

Robbins wrote a new essay to pose that question to us, and then makes his argument with the help of old poets, philosophers, writers, singers, and filmmakers. We make art, dearly beloved, because it helps us “get through this thing called life.

The composition of verse is part of what it means to be human. It is, in one formulation and according to Robbins, “a response to threat.” It is a consolation in the face of suffering and our eventual death. It crosses chasms and creates bonds. It renders meaning and brings forth a shared language. Art appeals to the affections as well as to our rationality. It evokes a visceral response, one we cannot help but attempt to articulate, no matter how vain those articulations might be toward accurately conveying our experience.

Drawing from an insight of Harold Bloom, Robbins agrees that a text is “good for something.” Robbins writes that “we can make them do things for us.” We keep making texts and poetry and other works of art because they are “of use.” A thing that is of use is otherwise known as “equipment.” Robbins forwards this idea with a phrase from Kenneth Burke, who wrote “Poetry…is undertaken as equipment for living, as a ritualistic way of arming us to confront perplexities and risks.”

Robbins cites examples from Boethius and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He draws from Nietsche and Cameron Crowe. He shows how poetry and song provide forms that offer both consolation and community. He is carefully to say that “Poetry does not kiss the boo-boo and make it all better.” Poetry does not solve or minimize our problems, but it does provide “strategies” for us as we confront the human situation. Poetry offers us ways of responding. “It’s like in the song…”

Robbins notes how the various forms of poetry and pop music also serve to distinguish one community from another, citing the example of different Christian communities. Robbins writes, “The televangelical JAY-sus, the sober Jesu Christe of the Latin Mass, the radical Jewish peasant Yeshua of Nazareth of Guy Davenport’s translations, and the Gee-zuhhs of Norman Greenbaum’s “gotta have a friend in” are not the same sort of equipment.” And he’s right. They are not.

In this very same essay Robbins notes pop music captures and relays some “ideal” that is commonly known to everyone, which I understand to include notions about love, friendship, sorrow, adventure, tragedy, and others. Or, that is the intent. Some artists succeed, and others fail miserably.

My thoughts as I read this essay turned to the Psalms, which come to us as both poetry and song, and then more: prayer. They convey meaning; they create community. The psalms bind one heart to another in their recitation, in their singing, in their praying. Monastic rhythms are built on the Psalter, as are liturgical rhythms. Poetry becomes song, which then becomes prayer, or perhaps it is prayer that becomes poetry which then becomes song, or song becoming prayer that is then experienced as poetry. You get my drift.

For the Christian person, the wider testimony of Scripture is also text, a work of literature, God-breathed, around which a community has been formed. It contains wisdom and narrative that provide “strategies” for life. It is also a text, read differently by different communities, that has spawned multitudes, offering diverse forms of “equipment” for understanding the Divine and best stewarding the creation. This is why we continue to need the theologian, the prophet, and the critic, who can help us to discern the good, true, and beautiful from the wicked, false, and ugly. Useful tools can be taken up toward destructive ends, as we sadly know.

We also know that Christian communities continue to bring forth something new, all while drawing from the old. This is for good reason. We continue to live. We continue to face reality, and it continues to bring forth joys and sorrows. Most human beings want to live well. They continue to ask, “Who is well off?” and “What does it mean to be virtuous?” and “How do I become a person who is well off?” They make their best run at the answers, while holding out hope that the answers they find are good ones. Thomas Merton understood, “The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived.” This is why all theology, in the end, is practical. It is to be “of use.”

Which is why I think Christians continue to write, and preach, and to “work out” salvation. We must continue to make, to create. Life offers us no other choice.

It is one thing to proclaim that God has given us all the equipment we need for living. It is another to put it to use.

The Midlife Satisfaction Slump

I’m reading Jonathan Rauch’s latest work The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50.

Rauch writes about the dip of midlife, known popularly as a kind of “crisis,” but more often experienced as a sense of deep satisfaction, a feeling that life hasn’t measured up to what was expected. In youth, we expect to achieve, and most work hard, earn status, maybe start a family. We hit some rocks, experience some disappointments, change jobs or jump careers. And then suddenly we find that we have the stuff, we have friends, we have status, and we think, “Is this it?”

If you’ve thought that, that’s normal. And if you haven’t thought that, you will. The midlife slump, or the feelings of dissatisfaction, are natural. They are part of life.

Rauch writes:

To an extent, the evidence confirms what we all know: the middle years of adult life are often the most restless, stressed, and unhappy. Of course, midlife stress can come from the burdens of demanding jobs and jammed schedules and teenaged kids and aging parents. But here is where the evidence and the conventional wisdom part ways: the midlife dip in happiness shows up even after factoring out the stresses and strains and ups and down of life. In fact, it shows up especially after factoring out the stresses and strains and ups and downs of life.

It turns out these feelings are part of a natural transition, a movement from the drive to achieve to the desire to connect. Rauch writes that “the post-midlife upturn is no mere transient change in mood: it is a change in our values and sources of satisfaction, a change in who we are.”

How do we change? We see that life is fleeting and our stuff isn’t forever. That even if we’ve achieved great things, we’ve also been tossed against rocky shoals and survived. Many of us learn, and learn well, that our social ties are what count the most, our families and friends and communities. And we’ve gained enough wisdom and perspective to offer guidance and help to those who are younger, who are still on the way.

As a Christian, I know that life is a gift and old age is a blessing. This is a countercultural message, especially considering that I live in the modern West, where the goal of many is to get out of life alive. Rauch may be right in that the social science demonstrates conclusively that we do change as we age, and that the midlife slump and successive uptick is a natural transition. If this is true, this knowledge can help us to navigate this period more successfully. Complemented by Christian virtue and formation, this knowledge can also help young adults within congregations transition well as they age in terms of their role within communities of faith, offering social support and hard won wisdom to those of emerging generations.

At a previous ministry stop I had a friend named Bob Wright. He was in his eighties. He befriended me. He didn’t have to. But he did. He took me to lunch, and made sure I had cookies to take home to my kids. He was an old cattleman. And even though we didn’t see eye to eye on everything, we were brothers in Christ. He offered wisdom and historical perspective, and he said that I helped him to see the church, and our times, from a different point of view. Every moment I spent with Bob was a gift.

Churches are beginning to recognize that age-group affinity groups have their shortcomings. They’ve responded by trying to connect generations, by setting up mentoring relationships between young and old. Usually, the impetus is placed on the older generations. But in healthy communities, this kind of seeking should go both ways. These kinds of relationships are vessels for wisdom, available to both older and younger congregants. Older members have gifts to offer to younger generations, and vice-versa, accessible through the ties of friendship.

I don’t know if I will find life better after 50. In twelve years, I guess I’ll see. But it is preferable to think there is more to look forward to, riches that only come with the accrual of age, and the opportunity to assess those riches, to make connections, and to serve.