Control

Thanks to Steve for his response to a previous post. I’m going to respond to his comment in this post out of convenience from a text-editing standpoint, and because the point he raises has been voiced by various people in different but related contexts. Steve wrote:

Would you really gather inside for worship wearing a mask and sitting 6 feet apart if the state allowed it? You would be devastated if a parishioner became ill after attending such a service. From a practical perspective it’s just not safe and too risky. Let’s be honest, this rant is about the separation of church & state.

This is about my sixth take on a response (I deleted the first five!), and I’ve probably written a few thousand words before deciding to opt for the less-is-more approach. I take Steve’s questions in good faith and pray these responses will be received the same way.

Yes, I would really gather inside for worship if it was not expressly forbidden by the State. We did so for over 100 years prior to COVID. We did so in June and July and again in October and most of November when we were allowed. This is a Church, I’m her pastor, and it’s my job to provide the Word and Sacraments of God to the people of God. I’ve been blessed to do this for the last 13 years or so without having to explicitly question the means by which we did so under the rubric of whether it was safe or not. Of course it was safe enough – it’s what we’d always done! The only thing that called our traditional ways of doing things into question was COVID and subsequent restrictions on houses of worship.

We are blessed to reside in a county with some of the lowest infection rates of any county in the nation. We’ve adhered to CDC and state stipulations and guidelines, even as those have flexed and changed and changed again over the past nine months. None of our members has had COVID, thankfully. I could say this is because of the precautions we’ve been instructed to take but I’ll never know that for sure this side of eternity. The precautions as a whole seem reasonable and so we abide by them. What is unreasonable is when exemptions are made for some businesses with far closer exposure and fewer precautions while houses of worship are by and large arbitrarily restricted. I’ve heard of two outbreaks allegedly linked to houses of worship in the last nine months. I’d encourage anyone to research those further and judge for themselves if they are good enough grounds upon which to base a large policy restricting a Constitutionally guaranteed right. In San Diego strip clubs are allowed to operate while churches are restricted. I pray that recent Supreme Court decisions will begin to help state leadership re-evaluate their mandates. Not every church can, should, or will allow people back inside for worship during the pandemic. But that is a decision the congregation should make, not some official with no direct knowledge of the particulars.

Not only have we met when legally allowed to do so, my people have wanted to meet. I haven’t forced them. We have some who won’t or shouldn’t attend and I understand that completely. I’m supportive of those who don’t feel able to worship to stay home. Nearly all of my members want to meet, but not all of them can. If the majority of my members desire to worship and consider the risk one they are willing to take, it is not my job as pastor to tell them they can’t, that I refuse to provide them Word and Sacrament because it’s not safe to do so. Safe is a slippery word.

I would definitely feel bad if a member got sick. Would I take personal responsibility if they did? No. I am not the one who ensures their health and safety. We come to give worship and praise to the God we claim is in control of all things, including COVID. I don’t presume this means we can hug and kiss and sneeze into each others’ faces with impunity, but at least my witness of faith needs to be that God is the only one who keeps us safe. Therefore if my members are willing to gather, I will feed them the Word and the Sacraments. We’ll use the brains God gave us to try and do so reasonably given the circumstances, but I will not deny them the option. I also will use the brains God gave me to listen critically to what my elected and appointed leaders tell me. History shows them to be far less reliable than God!

This may sound callous at first, but let’s play it out a bit. I had a member (recently deceased) who went through a bad period of falls whenever she would come to church. She wore high heel shoes well into her 90’s, and as her balance and vision betrayed her she would regularly fall. Outside on the patio. Inside on the carpeting. Should we not have met because she was getting hurt and refused to wear more sensible shoes? Should I have turned her away in the parking lot for her own protection?

I can’t keep people safe. I can do what seems good and right and salutary by any number of different standards Biblical and otherwise as an effort to love my neighbor. But I can’t keep them safe. That’s not my job. I have to leave that in my Lord’s hands. Again, I don’t say this lightly or flippantly, but faithfully. I have to trust God to keep me safe every time I make a hospital call. I’ve been around people in all manner of infectious states (pre-COVID) and trusted ultimately in my God to keep me healthy and safe. I still put on the gowns and masks and gloves when told to do so, but my trust goes deeper than those things. As Christians, we are called to this level of trust, to remember we are not the ones in control of our lives.

In regards to not safe and risky, I believe that’s a decision each group of believers has to make for themselves based on their circumstances and their understanding of God’s Word. Christians met illegally and under threat of death for 300 years in the Roman Empire and for decades in Communist China and the former Soviet Union. They are still persecuted and executed around the world for their faith. And yet in all these places and times Christians have prioritized worship. They took precautions, I have no doubt. But they often made the decision that despite the risks and despite a definite lack of safety they would gather together to receive the gifts of God in his Word and Sacraments. This meant many of them were arrested, tortured, disfigured, and executed. This did not discourage other Christians but oftentimes emboldened them. We hold up and honor those Christians who were willing to take risks and suffer the consequences rather than renounce their faith or opt for a safe alternative. How can we be critical when Christians continue to seek God’s Word and Sacrament today?

Perhaps the issue is not whether Church is a safe place (it’s not – spiritually and otherwise!), but whether Americans value worship as much in an age where the Word and worship is a click away – a television station or a radio station or a YouTube channel away. Maybe the deeper question is how technology has impacted our valuation of human contact and community, leading us to believe that technology can fill these needs in our lives. That in an age when everything else is self-serve and an Amazon delivery away, worship ought somehow to be the same – on our terms and for our short term comfort. Perhaps a deeper question is how our avoidance of death through a cult of youth and beauty and exercise has left us vulnerable to the rawness of a world we do not control.

Barring the return of our Lord first, all of us are going to die. The Church is here to teach people how to live as well as how to face death. To give hope and assurance that COVID or cancer or substance abuse or abusive parents or any number of other tragic events do not have the last word on us even if they kill us. If we’re going to glorify doctors and nurses and grocery store workers and other front line workers, we should no less glorify the God of Church for sustaining his people to proclaim the Word of God and provide the gifts of God to the people of God. The Church does no one any good by acting as though a few more days or months or years of life is more important than eternity. There is no other organization that bears witness to this truth! And just as I want doctors and nurses and teachers to stand by their posts and do their jobs despite the risks, those of them who are Christian need to be sustained by the Church to do so, to know that what they do has meaning and value and their lives – if sacrificed in love of neighbor – are not lost or wasted but eternally anchored in the Son of God who overcame COVID and death. Their non-Christian colleagues need this same support and truth, they just don’t realize it yet.

So yes, I will meet inside again as soon as my people are ready to. The cold and damp weather is just as dangerous to them as COVID. So is the isolation and distance that has plagued our country and world for the last nine months. I’m in no hurry to die, and I’m in no hurry for my people to die. But if they face death – and we each do every day – they should be prepared to counter that fear and anxiety with hope not grounded in the fiat of a government official but in the resurrected Son of God, Jesus the Christ. To the best of my ability I will model that courage, and give my brothers and sisters in the faith the opportunity to model it as well, even as we use our best judgment to love and care for each other.

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