Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Friday & Worship

July 16, 2021

Parts of the Roman Catholic world are abuzz today over a declaration issued by Pope Francis. The Pope issued a mortu propio, essentially a directive directly from himself as the Pope, without necessary consultation with other Church leadership or authority. These are apparently issued relatively infrequently (the first in the 15th century) and can have profound impact on Church practice.

This one – entitled TRADITIONIS CUSTODES, essentially curtails the use of the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), also referred to as the Tridentine Mass. This was the form of worship the Roman Catholic Church made use of almost exclusively for nearly 400 years – up until the reforms of Vatican II. In issuing this pronouncement, Pope Francis appears to be making it more difficult, though not completely impossible, for parishes to offer TLM, encouraging them instead to move towards worship in the vernacular.

From my denomination’s perspective, this would be the equivalent of the Synodical President effectively banning a particular form of worship. Pope Francis’ directive requires local bishops to make determination of whether or not TLM is necessary or appropriate within their jurisdiction, the equivalent of making every individual congregation in our denomination get special permission from their District President to celebrate a particular form of worship. One can imagine the challenges in this rather easily, from the logistical perspective to say the least. And if your bishop doesn’t wish to see TLM observed? I guess you’re out of luck.

Our denomination has struggled for years over the issue of worship, so this isn’t exactly a foreign subject. Thus far at least there have been no definitive pronouncements on the topic of traditional vs. contemporary worship, though more than a few would have done so if given the opportunity or they thought they could get away with it without splintering our denomination.

The Pope’s orders are effective immediately, and allow for no period of consideration, questioning and the like. For those attached to TLM (and apparently there are many) this is a particularly brutal, insensitive and rash decision. I can empathize with them. I hurt for those whose desired form of worship has now been made more elusive or even unavailable. And I pray this will not be a wedge between the faithful and the Church. While I’m not Roman Catholic, anything that drives people away from the communion of the saints is a bad thing, even if it originates from within the Church. I pray those who are hurt and angry will – by the grace of God – be granted peace and the ability to forgive these decisions they vehemently disagree with, and that their faith might in the process grow rather than diminish.

Book Review: The Apostles’ Creed for Today

July 12, 2021

The Apostles’ Creed for Today by Justo L. Gonzalez

The tone of this book begins markedly different than the previous two I’ve read and reviewed, and while that tone diminishes somewhat through the book, it still is an underlying assumption throughout.

First off, this book is fantastic for the depth of history it provides. Given that Gonzalez was the youngest recipient of Yale’s Ph.D in historical theology, this should come as no surprise. He does a good job of tracing the history of the Creed back as far as textual sources will allow – the middle 2nd century and a baptismal creedal formula in use in Rome very similar to what we know as the Apostles’ Creed, though not exactly the same. Thus Gonzalez also effectively denies apostolic authorship of the Creed, at least in the way referenced by Augustine in the 4th century and later writers. But Gonzalez’ work clearly demonstrates a strong assertion that the Creed is old, very old, and may well be rooted in the words of the Apostles’ themselves and the first century Church.

Gonzalez also provides helpful distinctions in the difference in use of the Apostles’ Creed in the West and the Nicene Creed in the East, while also casting some aspersions on the former as perhaps a later political and theological tool, a claim to an older Creedal formulae than the Nicene Creed. However the scholarship Gonzalez refers to in this short book clearly refutes such an interpretation. The Apostles’ Creed is likely older, but was not developed to bulwark claims of greater legitimacy by the Western Church.

Finally Gonzalez goes to great pains to distinguish how the Apostles’ Creed would likely be interpreted by early Christians as opposed to today’s Church. Sometimes this is very helpful, sometimes it is speculative to the point of being unhelpful. While we definitely have an overly-emotionalized spiritual climate in much of the Church today, this does not mean there were no emotional elements in the early Church. And the glaringly political overtones of some of the Creed should not be lost on the Church today, particularly in America where political affiliations now increasingly divide and shatter congregations.

However Gonzalez does not presume what Dr. Mohler asserts in his book, that the Creed represents the bare minimum of belief for someone to call themselves a Christian in any meaningful or definable way. Gonzalez states on p.7 …it would be helpful to think of the Creed not so much as a personal statement of faith but rather as a statement of what it is that makes the church be the church, and of our allegiance to the essence of the gospel and therefore to the church that proclaims it. Gonzalez seems wary of challenging or catechizing readers who may not accept certain statements in the Creed, and more interested in helping them to understand what it says. While understanding is important, this single statement on p.7 perpetuates an underlying theme of permissiveness throughout the book. You may or may not believe any one (or more) of the particular statements in the Creed. That’s the beauty of the Church – it can encompass many different theological stances, Gonzalez asserts later on. Given Gonzalez’ emphasis on ecumenism this isn’t surprising, but denying any of the statements in the Creed is a direct assault on the Bible itself. While Gonzalez never goes this far overtly, it seems clear he would rather agree to disagree while undermining the authority of Scripture. What is left is a vacuum devoid of any authority, and therefore devoid of any meaningful way of either agreeing or disagreeing. This is the crux of conflict in modern Christianity in Europe and America. If the Bible is not authoritative, there is no authority left other than personal opinion.

Gonzalez displays typical modern sensitivity to matters of gender and race, and it is clear that his theology is strongly influenced by concepts of social justice as foundational Biblical mandates. He is openly supportive of alternative, non-gender specific references to both God the Father and God the Son that once again undermine Biblical authority by ignoring what the Bible actually says in favor of something more personally appealing.

Finally, as evidence of Gonzalez’ suspicion of Biblical authority, he quotes it very rarely, referring far more often to the writings of Church Fathers. Again this isn’t surprising given his doctoral emphasis, but it does display less of a concern for the Bible as the source of the Creed. It isn’t that Gonzalez never refers to Scripture in this book, it’s just that often he rationalizes from other sources and causes. For example, on his discussion of the final statement of the Creed regarding the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, Gonzalez cites two reasons why these statements are important. The first is his assertion the early Church wanted to emphasize the ongoing work of God’s creative powers in Christian hope, and the second was as an affirmation of the innate goodness of the material, contra prevailing philosophical theories of the day which denigrated anything physical and glorified spirit as our true nature imprisoned in our decaying flesh.

Both of these may well be true, but there’s the other glaring reason these assertions are in the Creed – it’s what God has told us in his Word! The opening verses of John 14 should be reason enough to include statements regarding resurrection and eternal life, let alone Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff!

This is a good book overall, particularly if you desire a bit more historical background on the Creed. But it should also be read cautiously. The Creed depends upon and is drawn from the Word of God. As such, what the Creed asserts should not be juggled so lightly. Those who sincerely question and are seeking greater faith should be encouraged towards such, not told that they are free to accept or reject aspects of the Creed – and therefore the Bible – based on their own personal opinions. This is not a means of unifying the Church but undermining it.

Book Review – I Believe

June 29, 2021

I Believe: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed by Alister McGrath

The first book I finished in preparation to teach on the Apostles’ Creed is this one. Alister McGrath is a well-known theologian who comes from a different Christian tradition than mine – one of the reasons I wanted to read his take on the Apostles’ Creed. I know he and I differ on some rather fundamental issues but I was curious how he would deal with the Creed. Overall, he deals with it very, very well.

He notes early on that one’s view of the Creed is tied to one’s view of Scripture. Since the Creed simply summarizes core aspects of Biblical revelation, if one dismisses the Bible as just the work of human authors or unreliable in the process of copying and translation, one is not going to be terribly excited about the Creed, and will likely dismiss all or parts of it out of hand. However if one takes Scripture seriously, as Christians have for the past two thousand years, then the Creed will be a handy way of boiling down the core matters that define whether one is a Christian or not.

This is important.

Anyone can call themselves a Christian. But for 2000 years the basic litmus test for such an assertion is whether or not they believe everything the Creed states. Not because the Creed is inspired in any way, but because the Creed is anchored firmly in Scripture and Scripture is the defining source for Christian faith. You can call yourself a Christian all you want, but if you deny any elements of the Creed, you are dismantling a very integrated theology and world-view, one that Christians for thousands of years have insisted cannot be dismantled. It is either accepted in entirety, or it cannot stand up to sustained critical examination.

With this in mind, it’s interesting that McGrath is able to assert wholeheartedly the opening description of God the Father – Maker of Heaven and Earth. If he is an ardent supporter or defender of theistic evolution, he doesn’t go into it here. He rightly maintains that God is the creator of all things but skirts the issue of whether the Biblical description of a seven-day creation is literal or possibly metaphorical. Some might argue that such an issue is tangential and unrelated to the generic statement of God as maker of heaven and earth. However as McGrath notes elsewhere in this book, to discount the miraculous in one part of Scripture throws a wrench into maintaining support for the miraculous elsewhere. And while I don’t doubt McGrath would argue theistic evolution is not denying God’s miraculous creative role, there are many Christians (myself included) who disagree with him.

This is a good introductory exploration of the Creed. Each chapter takes up one of the twelve faith statements. McGrath first explains all of the relevant parts of the statement at hand. He then returns to address how the ideas play out today. To affirm that God is the Father is one thing, but if it is to be more than an intellectual assent, it should have some interplay with how we live our lives if we believe it to be true, and McGrath does respectable work at connecting those dots.

At just over 100 pages in length (plus a bibliography and some helpful notes for those who want to use the book for small group study) it’s not exhaustive by any means. But it’s a good reminder (perhaps to those in McGrath’s Reformed stream of Christianity) that the Creeds are very helpful and good, and should be greatly esteemed.

The Apostles’ Creed

June 28, 2021

As I continue the transition from parish ministry towards eventual deployment as a theological educator overseas, my first opportunity to interact cross-culturally will come in August. I’ve been invited to lead a winkel consisting of a dozen or more Taiwanese pastors and church workers. A winkel is a Peruvian word that translates roughly to “fish slapper”.

That’s not entirely true. It’s actual an old German word with a variety of meanings depending on syntax, but in this usage it means corner or spot and is the traditional word in Lutheran circles for a gathering of pastors. These meetings usually include prayer, study, theological conversation, worship, the Sacraments, and general fellowship. I’ve been blessed to have been a part of the same winkel group over my nearly 15 years in ministry, and it was a good experience. Ideally it should be a place to be encouraged and strengthened by people who all are called to the ministry in similar capacities.

So I’ve been invited to share the teaching portion of a cross-cultural winkel. I’ll be doing it long distance as I’m still in the US. The topic I’ve chosen is the Apostles’ Creed, and more specifically, the First Article of the Creed. As such, I’ve been doing some reading and research on the Creed, and I’ll be sharing book reviews shortly.

But first and foremost, I’m reminded in this study of the importance of what you say about the Bible. The Apostles’ Creed has been in use for probably 1600 years at the very least, and the core tenets it summarizes are well-attested to going back to apostolic times. But the Creed is only as helpful as your view of the Bible. A low view of the Bible – meaning you don’t accept it (or at least all of it) as the inspired Word of God maintained in integrity through history and directly relevant and definitive for Christian belief and practice today – will mean you probably don’t think much of the Creed, since the Creed is based entirely on Scripture. If you have a high view of Scripture, seeing it as the reliable, inspired Word of God and normative for Christian belief and practice, then what the Creed says won’t be very surprising, although there is still plenty to think about!

So before you start studying the Creed, come to some conclusions about how you think about and interact with the Bible.

Sacraments and Sacred Cows

June 25, 2021

First, here’s a great article to read from one of my favorite sites – GetReligion.org.

Now, first of all, this is not a weaponization of the sacrament. This is teaching the Christian church, based on the Bible (Genesis 9:5-7; Exodus 20:13). For those that question the applicability of the Genesis 9 text, consider particularly verse 7. The prohibition against the killing of human beings is framed by the original command to be fruitful and multiply.

The only reason this situation is a quandry for the Roman Catholic Church (and any other religious body that prohibits abortion) is they have been reluctant to treat this as seriously as it actually is. I’ll assume that for decades there has been the opinion within the Church that Roman Catholics involved in politics at the highest level are ultimately a good thing, even if they deny some of the Church’s core tenets. This leniency to facilitate the progress of Roman Catholic politicians up the pecking order has proven to be ineffective, at least in terms of challenging the wanton destruction of human life that is legalized abortion. Roman Catholic politicians have seemed – on the whole – more willing to sacrifice the doctrine of the Church they claim adherence to over sacred political cows.

This is not – or at least should not be – primarily about President Biden. This should be about men and women who profess faith in the doctrines and therefore good standing in the Roman Catholic Church being called to account for their support and defense of political positions that stand in complete and utter contradiction to the historic Christian faith. This is not a Roman Catholic issue, this is a Christian issue. The above verses from Genesis and Exodus make it clear human life is of paramount concern to God and therefore to his followers. This is not simply an Old Testament issue but a New Testament one as well, as our Lord makes clear in Matthew 5:21-26. That Christians (not just Roman Catholics) have understood this as protecting human life no matter how small or how aged is clear from one of our earliest surviving documents showing the teaching of the Christian church in the 1st century – the Didache. It makes clear that Christians reject not only infanticide but abortion. The killing of the newly born and the killing of the unborn – dealt with in two separate statements to show there was no confusion in their minds about what they meant, and we should have no confusion in ours.

I have nothing per se against President Biden as a person or a political figure. But if he professes to be a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church, he needs to recognize that his defense of or advocacy of legalized abortion is in direct contradiction to the teachings of the Church body I hope he relies on to receive the Word of God and the Sacraments of God. And from 1 Corinthians on, it is clear that in response to resolute refusal to repent of open sin, the action of the Church is to say to the sinner, you are in such danger of eternal damnation that we will not pretend everything is all right. We will treat you as someone who has not received Jesus Christ as his/her Lord and Savior, because you are refusing to follow his clear and direct teaching. The intent is not punitive but salvific. The intent is that the person refused the Sacraments would recognize their error, repent, and change their ways.

This might prove problematic to their political career, but of immense value to their eternal salvation. President Biden, in some respects, has a unique opportunity to demonstrate this. His public repentance – as sitting President and highest representative of the Democratic Party – could signal to many other men and women far lower in pecking order that what matters is faithfulness to their Lord’s directives, rather than adherence to a party doctrine.

I pray the Roman Catholic Church has the strength to follow through on the threats it has made pointlessly for decades. I pray other parts of the Christian Church would have the strength and integrity to do the same. There is nothing to be gained in delaying doing so, and only more to be lost. Not just here and now in terms of election and political influence, but eternally in terms of souls lost in sin promoted by those who claimed to be followers of Jesus.

Changes

April 10, 2021

In a couple of hours I will officially change jobs. Last Sunday – Easter Sunday – was my last official day with the parish I’ve been pastoring for nearly eleven years. And this morning I will be installed into a position I accepted nearly two months ago, have nearly completed initial orientation and training for, but still isn’t official until I’ve been installed.

I’m staring at piles of boxes in my office as I write. I’m 80% done with packing things up, waiting now to figure out where we’ll be living for the next few months until my family and I are able to deploy to the field I’ll be serving. We’re leaving the United States and I’m leaving traditional parish ministry, both for the indefinite future. I’ve accepted a position as a regional theological educator for my denomination in Southeast Asia, working as a support and resource to partner church organizations in that part of the world. I bring to the task a curious mixture of parish pastor experience as well as experience as a collegiate educator and corporate trainer. It’s an unusual mixture, accumulated in reverse order from many of my colleagues who pastor first and then go on to teach.

Change is hard for people and I’m no exception, though my tolerance for it is higher than some. Apparently that’s a valuable trait in overseas work, where daily routines can be fluid, to say the least. I leave behind the joys of preaching and teaching in a predictable cycle for the uncertainties of learning a new language, adapting to a new culture, and participating in the work of the Church in a different capacity. While there’s the exoticness of relocating to the other side of the world, there’s also sorrow at leaving literally one of the most perfect climates on earth for a much hotter and more humid climate. I’ve demonstrated repeatedly in my life that I can learn enough of a language (four of them, at present) to achieve short-term academic objectives, but now I have to become fluent in a fifth language. And not just ordinary fluent, but theologically fluent.

It’s exciting. Slightly terrifying at times. Oddly comfortable most of the time. I’m grateful I don’t have to do it alone while also realizing my family will need to negotiate most of these same challenges. Together we’re confident we can do it. We do believe God the Holy Spirit is leading us in this direction, opening doors and facilitating the transition. We also realize that’s no guarantee of success (at least in worldly terms). Finding that balance between humility and excitement is a day-by-day process.

I’ll be continuing to blog, though the topics may take on a decidedly more international slant. The same issues of culture and faith and life that I began writing here with fifteen years ago continue to be a source of continued fascination. And I’ll try to keep it mixed up a little bit with less weighty observations. Perhaps I’ll have time to resume work on some of the longer-term projects I’ve launched here, such as completing my study of the Bible’s treatment of alcohol, and finally finishing my analysis of Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. I plan to keep up with the Rambling postings each Sunday, as hopefully I’ll continue to have preaching opportunities, even if those become sparser as time goes on.

I hope all of you will keep in touch here as well. Your comments and questions have been the best part of blogging, and I’m grateful for the opportunities to dialog.

Guess I should go finish packing the last two boxes of my theological library. It will be fascinating to see where those boxes get unpacked!

How We Do Things

April 9, 2021

Tomorrow I will be installed in a new position. I move from being a parish pastor to working for my denominational polity in the capacity of an overseas theological educator serving partner church organizations in Southeast Asia. This requires the relocation of myself and my family to Southeast Asia, after a process of creating a network of supporters who will pray, encourage, share with others, and provide the financial stability for us to sustain years of work on the other side of the world.

Different church bodies handle these sorts of transitions differently. Some are very directive and a person can be moved at will by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to different locations or different positions. Some are very localized and independent and a pastor is essentially accountable to no one for the career decisions he (or she) makes. Lutherans are in this regard very consistent with our approach to most things, trying to hold together the tension the Bible sometimes creates when it describes different things without directing or prescribing them.

That means as an ordained minister I am not solely responsible and neither is my denominational body for matters of new or different positions. There are multiple entities involved in this. The Holy Spirit of God is acknowledged as a prime mover and director in these things, though in practice He is difficult to identify or quantify! I have a role to play, as does my denominational polity, and finally the specific people also affected by such changes – the congregation I have served for the last 11 years and the people I will be working with in the future. All of those entities are presumed to have a voice in this. The nature of that voice and how it is expressed vary, but they are all factors that contribute. Ideally this minimizes personal whim to some degree and provides some level of accountability.

I was issued a Call at the end of January. Think of a Call as an offer for a job. These days a Call usually occurs after some period of mutual exploration and discussion. Traditionally though, this was not necessarily the case, and a pastor in our denomination might simply receive Call documents in the mail out of the blue from some unknown congregation. In either situation, it’s the pastor’s duty to inform his current congregation of the Call, and then to prayerfully consider the Call and whether he should accept it. The Call documents should contain the basics to inform such a decision – location, information about the Calling entity, job description, compensation description, housing issues, and medical insurance details, for starters.

The pastor prays, discusses with family, and comes to a decision. If he declines the Call he notifies his own congregation and informs the Calling entity in writing and that’s the end of the story. At least until another Call arrives! I know a guy who had three Calls to consider in a period of less than six months!

If the pastor decides to accept the Call, he informs his congregation and the Calling congregation as well and plans to transition. Transitions are hard and therefore are recommended to be reasonably swift without being too abrupt. The congregation the pastor is leaving needs to begin making plans to Call a new pastor and hanging around for months and months is usually counter-productive to this.

All of the various necessities of relocation and other things are secondary to the installation of the pastor in his new capacity. A formal installation is a public event wherein someone called to an official position in the Church is installed in this capacity. Ideally it’s a public witness that the process of reaching this point has been conducted in good faith, though that isn’t always the case, unfortunately. But it is the public declaration that this person has been asked to perform these particular tasks on behalf of the Calling congregation or entity.

In my case, the Call wasn’t from a congregation but from our denominational polity, and specifically from the part of that organization overseeing overseas church work. In this situation, my installation has to occur here in the United States, with a local congregation essentially standing in and representative of our denominational polity. The congregation I am leaving will voice support for and acceptance of my work in this new capacity on behalf of the larger church body. The installation happens here rather than on the other side of the world because here we have congregations who can speak on behalf of denomination.

Installation is a rite, something our church body has developed under the influence of Scripture and in an effort to be faithful to it, but ultimately it’s something we have created for our own use. I’m installed by another representative of my denomination – oftentimes an ecclesiastical supervisor or designated representative. In my case, I’ve asked to be installed by a retired pastor who is a member of my congregation but also spent the first decade of his ministry career serving as a missionary in the Philippines. I like the symmetry of someone who has worked in that part of the world on behalf of the church installing me in my new role in that area, even if my role will differ markedly from his.

Installations can be big affairs – entire church services crafted around the Rite of Installation. I’ve opted for a more stripped-down approach. It’s more appropriate to have a big celebration when the installation is in the congregation where the pastor is arriving. It’s a little harder to celebrate when the pastor is leaving that congregation (though of course there are times when that kind of celebration is pretty appropriate!). I’m a simple guy. A simple service will do.

Once that installation is complete the transition will be final. It is the final acknowledgement that all parties involved trust that not simply human agency was involved in this transition, but God himself. It’s his glory and purpose we’re after, in the end, not our own personal preferences (although I believe He can use those preferences). It isn’t a guarantee of success, but rather how we do things in an attempt to be faithful to God’s Word and God’s people. When it’s done properly it can be a beautiful thing, but it is also a system involving sinful human beings and so it can be manipulated.

Hopefully, this transition is one of the former rather than the latter!

Fear and Loathing in the Confessional

March 30, 2021

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” John 20:21-23

The work of the Church is declaring the good news of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ to those wracked with guilt and desirous of change. Often this gets abbreviated to just telling people about Jesus, but the crucial matter is what you tell them. If you tell them only that Jesus loves them, and never tell them of their sin and need for forgiveness, you haven’t shared the full story. If you only introduce them to the historical figure of Jesus without ever telling them why this historical figure matters to their lives unlike any other historical figure, you haven’t shared the full story. For someone who can see their sinfulness, their need for sin and forgiveness, the most beautiful part of the story is that this is exactly why Jesus is relevant to them. This is what Jesus brings them that nobody else can. And the Church is to be the place marked by both the proclamation of this reality and the actual forgiving of sins.

So when the Church (or a particular parish or priest) refuses to offer forgiveness to those desiring it, there’s a serious problem. An issue in one Roman Catholic parish in New Jersey recently due to the pandemic. Due to complications arising from properly disinfecting surfaces in the confessional – the small cabinet traditionally used in Roman Catholic churches to screen the penitent from the priest and allow them to confess their sins and receive absolution – a priest refused to allow un-vaccinated people to come to Confession, one of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic church.

People are understandably somewhat frightened and weary of COVID. But refusing to absolve repentant sinners is a gross failure of an ordained priest, and one rightly corrected by ecclesiastical supervisors.

The irony here is that the prohibition against any un-vaccinated person coming to Confession was ostensibly for their own “protection”. However to not receive forgiveness is a far greater danger to a person’s well-being than COVID, with potentially eternal ramifications!

Now, I’m not Roman Catholic and I do not necessarily agree with their traditional practice of Confession, or their understanding of the need and role for penance in receiving forgiveness. But if you’re going to tell people their forgiveness is dependent on Confession, and forgiveness is the means of eternal life, and then you refuse to hear their confessions, there’s a dangerous problem at play here!

Thankfully the situation was rectified quickly.

Ashes, Ashes…

February 17, 2021

Another Ash Wednesday, and Christians around the world will participate in an ancient rite linking us to our mortality and to the promise of God that in Christ, our death is not the end. Growing up in a particular culture and religious tradition I presume a certain uniformity to rites such as the Imposition of Ashes. But that would be mistaken. Things are done in different ways and different places, something that shouldn’t be surprising but a good reminder of our unity in the midst of variation.

Breaking Good

February 8, 2021

The Supreme Court Friday determined the State of California could no longer enforce bans on indoor worship. This is good news for people of faith – Christian or otherwise – who over the past nearly year have by and large been unable to worship indoors and required to meet virtually or in parked cars, separated from one another by varying degrees of frankly arbitrary directions enacted by executive fiat rather than a due process of legislative evaluation and feedback. Good intentions to curb the pandemic, but good intentions which look at only the material, physical side of the suffering and ignore and even exacerbate the emotional, psychological, and spiritual sides.

Of course, just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Some religious groups may opt to continue worshiping outdoors because they believe it safest for their members. Others will joyfully be back inside tomorrow – or today. This will be another test for congregations – to determine what the best course of action is for them and their people regardless of what congregations around them might be doing.

Further, while indoor worship cannot be banned any longer, additional limitations – such as stronger language prohibiting singing or chanting – may may outdoor worship the preferred option for many congregations, especially if (like ours) the weather makes such an option reasonable. Good news in this case comes tempered by additional restrictions which may ultimately make it less good.

Back in June when the first stay-at-home order was lifted, I pushed easily to have us move back inside. We had already polled our members on this and their response was nearly unanimous that they wanted to return to indoor worship. We didn’t yet realize the staying power of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it seemed the most reasonable course of action. Eight months later, the option to return to indoor worship is more complicated for me.

Firstly, we’re blessed to live in an area where the weather is temperate year round, rainy days are rare and snow days are practically non-existent. It might be nippy at mid-morning still – in the 50’s – but workable, particularly when the sun is shining and there isn’t a breeze. As such even though my congregation is comprised almost exclusively of post-retirement adults, they’re not only willing but able to handle outdoor worship with some layers of clothing. The seats aren’t terribly comfortable, but they weren’t happy with the 50-year old cushions on the pews inside either!

More than a few people have commented how much they like being outside. A change of venue perhaps, or the ability to enjoy our glorious weather a little more than they might otherwise. Because a small group of dedicated volunteers has committed to coming early to set out chairs and set up the sound board and microphones and electronic keyboard, our outdoor worship really is a beautiful setting, even in a parking lot.

The pandemic certainly appears to be affecting our county more in the past couple of months than it did the rest of the previous pandemic period. While I still personally know very few people sickened by COVID, the reported numbers for the county are far higher than they used to be. Those numbers have dropped dramatically in the past two weeks or so, but they’re still comparable to earlier rates we considered high.

While many of my parishioners have either begun or completed their vaccination cycles, some of them won’t. None of our members have had COVID at all, despite our continued in-person worship whether outdoor or indoor. Some dismiss the media frenzy about COVID and point to the overwhelming recovery rates from COVID, despite the fact they are in the highest vulnerability demographic. Some of our folks may not feel comfortable worshiping indoors again knowing not everyone is going to be vaccinated, but that will likely be a minority and moreover that shouldn’t matter if they themselves have received the vaccine.

Our denominational leadership at global, national and local levels has maintained a position since the pandemic began asking local congregations to adhere to all applicable restrictions and instructions from health officials. Our denomination does not see doing so as in any way restricting our ability to worship our God (since we can do so virtually, outdoors, or with other reasonable adjustments), and a failure to abide by instructions runs us afoul of admonitions to civic obedience in Romans 13. Every individual congregation must make their decisions in this regard for themselves, and the range of responses is a rather wide spectrum.

Thrown into the mix are varying ideas of what our obligations are to one another in terms of safety and Christian love. Is it loving our fellow-parishioners to return to indoor worship knowing if they contract COVID they are more likely to have complications from it – complications which could prove lethal? What is the duty of a Christian congregation in the pursuit of safety? Christians around the world routinely choose to worship together despite a host of very real dangers in terms of arrest, imprisonment, capture, or worse. Christians the world over and throughout history have prioritized Christian worship and fellowship as worth risking their lives for. How does that reality and history impact decisions we make today in relative safety and comfort? And how do our decisions balance the reality that we proclaim a God who created all things and sustains all things and is more than able to keep us safe, with the recognition that this God also gave us our brains and we should therefore use them?

So the possibility of worshiping indoors again is more complicated this time than it was eight months ago. At least for me. But I remain steadfast in maintaining that regardless of the decision made, it is the duty and privilege of that local body of Christ – my particular congregation – to keep loving one another. Even if we’re not thrilled with the decision. Even if we would have preferred to stay outdoors or return indoors. Our personal preferences don’t outweigh direct Scriptural commands to show love to our brothers and sisters in Christ in our patience and willingness to sacrifice our personal rights if it in any way might endanger the faith of a brother or sister in Christ (1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14-15). It sounds simple but it turns out to be quite challenging for many people. Pandemics apparently don’t make it any easier, either. I trust we’ll make a good decision. Maybe not perfect, but one our people can work and will work with in love for one another and their God.