Evaluating Risk

Yesterday Governor Newsom announced religious institutions would be permitted to resume worship and other services. Stipulations and requirements are of course, well, required. Our congregational leadership has been preparing for this for some time and we’re ready to roll. But of course there is inevitably – and appropriately – the nagging question of whether it’s safe to do church again.

Lots of voices weigh in on this. My ecclesiastical supervisor issued a notice today encouraging pastors in his jurisdiction to not rush back to holding worship services again, but to make sure they have properly followed the instructions outlined by the Governor to protect their parishioners. Judicious advice. And while I’m sure there are a few hard-headed pastors out there who are hell-bent on starting worship again without any consideration for their parishioners, I trust they are a very small minority. I trust most pastors care a great deal about their parishioners and shudder at the thought that, perhaps, regardless of preparations and precautions, one of them might happen to catch something at church that leads to serious illness or death.

Should we sing? Should I wear a mask? The what-ifs abound. Despite very low occurrences of COVID-19 in our county it’s still a concern. Given the age of my parishioners the concerns are not unwarranted. Now, as always, I desire that worship not be an associated cause of death for anyone. Now that we know about a new virus, are additional concerns warranted?

Part of that concern is due, no doubt, in part to early reports of super-infection events concerning churches, reports that no doubt led to not just a shutdown of religious institutions but added ammunition for shutting down most institutions in general. Perhaps the first and most widely cited such event occurred on March 10th, a week before the statewide shutdowns started, and occurred at a small Presbyterian church in Mt. Vernon, Washington. Sixty some members of the church choir assembled for practice and within short order more than 40 of them were infected with Coronavirus and at least two died from it. Truly a horrific event that would haunt a pastor for the rest of his or her life.

But what if there was more to the story? What if it wasn’t simply a matter of a church choir? What if additional details weakened the link with churches and singing? Does that eliminate the possible risk to my people? No, it doesn’t. Are individuals and churches more informed and aware and in a better condition to practice reasonable cautions now than we were two months ago? Undoubtedly.

Still the effort to link houses of worship – particularly Christian ones – to COVID-19 spread and as justifying continued restrictions and modifications to worship persist. Consider this story from just last week. The headline makes it sound like this just happened – some crazy church someplace met in defiance of orders and now look what happened! Confirmation bias from the headline alone is pretty powerful.

But if you read the story, it has to do with a church event back in early March. March 6-8 to be specific. Not just a worship service but a multi-day children’s event. The article doesn’t indicate whether it was a retreat style event with children sleeping at the church. But it’s clear it’s not just a typical church event, and I’m guessing there’s more than a good chance that many of those present were not members or attenders of the church. Yet the headline and lead off of the article stresses the need for churches to either remain restricted or modify their services to protect the public.

But there is still risk. I argue there has always been risk. I have members paranoid about deranged shooters showing up, and certainly that’s a risk. We have flu season every year and for many of my folks the flu could be every bit as fatal as the Coronavirus, yet we continue to have church. Over the years many members have fallen, suffered seizures and other health crises during worship. Does that mean church should not meet? Does it mean Christians should be afraid lest injury or illness or death strike during worship?

At the end of the day, we know quite a lot. We know that one of two events is going to bring life as we know it and experience it personally to an end. Either each one of us will die, or our Lord will return to bring creation history to fulfillment and usher in something much greater and larger and better. Barring the occasional Enoch or Elijah, I can guarantee that one of these two events will affect every single one of my members. What we don’t know is the when and how.

But the Biblical injunction in uncertain times is always the same – don’t be afraid. Don’t be an idiot, either, but don’t be afraid.

God’s words to Abram in Genesis 15? Don’t be afraid. What did Moses command the Israelites, caught between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army? Fear not. God’s command to Joshua as he takes over Moses’ role as leader of the Israelites? Be courageous. Jonathon’s words to David as he fled Saul under threat of death? Don’t be afraid. Elijah’s words to the widow and her son who were preparing to die of starvation, when Elijah asked her to use the last of their foodstores to help feed him? Don’t be afraid. God’s message to Joseph in a dream after Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant before they were fully married? Don’t be afraid. The angels’ words to the shepherds before announcing the birth of the Messiah? Fear not.

Followers of Christ are not to be people of fear, and this takes tangible expression in how we live our lives and make decisions. Risk and danger are all around us – will we live in perpetual fear of drunk drivers or nuclear missiles or contaminated drinking water or COVID-19? No. We will use the brains God has given us and we will trust in our God, knowing that He has conquered all things in Christ and even our own health and death has been conquered by Christ. We don’t seek to die, but if and when we do we do so in the confidence we will live again.

Christian worship is the expression and articulation of this faith and anticipation. As we join our voices of praise with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we proclaim the dead are not gone but saints with Christ in glory, as we one day will also be. And that all of us will stand with Job and gaze upon our Redeemer with our own eyes.

So as churches open – and bookstores and movie theaters and sporting events eventually – we live our lives using the brains God gave us. This may mean we wait a little longer than others before showing back up for worship or using our season tickets to the Lakers. If that seems wisest given our own health condition, so be it. But each person will need to eventually make a decision whether they will live in fear or not. I can’t make that call for them, I can only try to show what it looks like to live confidently in my own life. Failures and all.

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