Archive for the ‘Citizenship’ Category

Irony

June 29, 2020

I’m a sucker for irony, so perhaps it’s just my skewed view of the world that finds it darkly humorous that players in the National Women’s Soccer League have the option of sitting in the locker room during the national anthem rather than being on the field as has been traditional in most American sports for decades.

Perhaps people will find it interesting that a soccer league – regardless of gender – was created in part to make the world a better place by creating a “platform” for players to voice their individual opinions and preferences. I’m willing to bet those opinions and preferences are not uniformly encouraged or supported, which leads me to suspect it’s less about player rights and self-expression and more about an organizational perspective of what makes the world “a better place.”

I have a solution to this curious conundrum of a team not being unified in their expressions of national support – just remove the word national from the league name. Since it clearly doesn’t indicate anything more than a designation of location, it hardly seems necessary. And if players believe that dissent means publicly disowning their nation until their nation does what they, personally (or organizationally) want it to do, all the more reason to remove the confusing nomenclature.

Clearly the national anthem is not a requirement for citizenship, and since most (all?) professional sports teams are private enterprises, there shouldn’t be a necessity of a tradition of the national anthem being played if they are ashamed of their country. Of course, I’d think it also reasonable that such teams would repudiate any compensation they might be receiving from public funds, whether in the form of tax breaks or other incentives. To make sure they don’t feel compromised in their play. Of course. I’d hate for them to feel unduly burdened in those ways as well as in the issue of the national anthem.

Writing History

June 26, 2020

You wouldn’t know it from reading local news stories, but public officials are allowing mobs of people to destroy public landmarks – the costs of which are borne by taxpayers.

For instance, in San Francisco several statues were recently knocked over by mobs of people. The reports of what happened and why are fascinating. Consider this report, which begins as a fairly neutral account of what happened and some of the costs entailed, but then devolves into a virtual legitimization of the destruction due to essentially bureaucratic red tape. If only officials had moved more quickly to respond to input, the situation could have been handled properly. The writer ends the column justifying the destruction of public property as appropriate, despite the fact that some of the destruction mentioned in the article is also described as “less thought out”.

Or you could read this report, that begins with justification of the actions. Neither article describes any real effort to apprehend the vandals or stop them from destroying the statues in the first place, even though it seems likely the police could have effectively intervened. Perhaps fear of reprisals in the form of demands for disbanding or defunding the police department caused officers to hesitate to get more directly involved? Regardless of the rationale, those police officers will be directly involved in terms of their tax monies being used to pay for necessary cleaning, removal, storage, and whatever other costs the mobs incurred.

Closer to home an effort was made – perhaps half-heartedly – to destroy a statue in Ventura, California.

This report makes it seem like a rather innocuous discussion, really. A respectful exchange of ideas about the future of a statue commemorating a historical figure prominent in California history. A “rally” is described to “discuss” relocating the statue to private property.

Or you could read this account, which describes a far more volatile confrontation and a desire for more than discussion, at least by some of those present. Again, police presence is described as somewhat distant, but in this case enough to deter those bent on illegal activity from pursuing their goal.

I’m not quite clear how these events are described so casually despite the destruction of public property intended or carried out. Does the fact that someone is allegedly angry mean they are not subject to the law? Isn’t the law intended, at a very practical level, to discourage certain behavior by people who might be highly emotional and not thinking most clearly? I’d be fascinated to learn if Black Lives Matter has plans to reimburse cities for the forced redecorating (dedecorating) carried out in the movement’s name? Perhaps they’ll take up collections from people happy that the offending monuments are gone to defray the costs? Or is that really not at all something they’re concerned about? Hmmm. That’s a tough one to figure out, isn’t it?

It’s a dangerous situation when people believe they can act with impunity, destroying parts of their community without bothering to consider how others think or feel about the destruction, and expecting those other people to pick up the tab for their actions. If this is a foreshadowing of how things will operate in the future of defunded police departments, I can’t say I’m a fan of it.

Not that anybody’s asking me.

Racism Is Sin

June 4, 2020

Earlier this week I sent a devotional to my congregation based on the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Matthew 28:16-20. I urged them in this season of unrest and disquiet and anger and fear to remember Jesus’ promise that whatever we face we will not face alone. I encouraged them to take these words to heart rather than allow the anger and demands of the culture around us to drive them to sin in terms of anger or fear. But after I sent that message I found myself asking the question why I didn’t write to them telling them to begin working for peace?  In the midst of chaos and hatred and confusion on a variety of levels  and fronts, shouldn’t this be the message of a pastor to his people?  Work for peace?  Demonstrate for peace?


This is the proper message, but demonstrations are not only in the streets.  Some are called to demonstrate in the streets, to exercise civil disobedience.  Never out of joy but always in the hopes of change.  Change as it inevitably is and must remain this side of heaven  – imperfect, fleeting at best, flawed more than not.  Sin must be called out for what it is and when confession and absolution are not enough, it must be dealt with through courts and penal systems.  Always with the prayer of repentance and forgiveness in Jesus for all involved, not simply the accused.  Some of you may well demonstrate for change and so long as you do so without hatred and malice this is your privilege first as a Christian and secondarily as an American.


Some of you will demonstrate for peace in other ways.  Quiet ways, by some  accounts.  With yourself.  With your spouse.  With your children and grandchildren.  With your neighbors.  We are called to be imperfect vessels  of peace to all people and at all times, even when retired or less mobile than we once were or would like to be.  Whether with our doctor or the grocery store clerk or the bank teller or the gardener, we should meet all people regardless of race or gender or creed with the love of Christ as Christ himself has welcomed us with his love.  There are no exceptions to this and no excuses for  refusing to follow it.  


You also demonstrate for peace when you refuse to allow yourself to be agitated or manipulated by the media or  various talking heads.  When you refuse to allow yourself or your faith to be  co-opted by others.  When you insist on spending your time in God’s Word and meditation on whatever is true or honorable  or just or pure or lovely or commendable or excellent.  When we refuse to allow ourselves  to be stirred to hatred on the pretext of righteousness we demonstrate for peace.  In your living room  or the driveway or at family reunions or in the quiet of your own heart.  


As we will hear in the Epistle lesson this Sunday, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  That’s you and I and George Floyd and Derek Chauvin.  Christ died for all of us because we are all ungodly.   All have sinned and fallen short.  Justice should be pursued and in this sinful world that means sometimes criminal and penal systems must be brought to bear to punish those whose sins are more  egregious.  These systems are themselves comprised of broken human beings and therefore imperfect but they are what we must deal with until our Lord’s return.  We can and should work for reform and change where we identify it is necessary.  But we should always remember systems will never end sin and if we put less faith and trust in them we will be less shocked and outraged when we find that sin exists in even the  most well-intentioned systems and solutions. 

The cure to racism and all sin is not a system but a Savior.  

So yes, work for peace because I can guarantee you somewhere in your lives is a place where more peace is needed.  Advocate for those in your life who are ostracized.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Give thanks that forgiveness is available to anyone and everyone in Jesus  Christ, and look towards the horizon constantly for his  return.  Be skeptical of easy answers.  Ground yourself  not in slogans or platforms or bumper stickers but in the Word of God that alone brings us the Son of God in whom alone are we promised real and true and lasting peace in this life and in eternity to come.

Don’t Tell Me I’m Brave

May 12, 2020

“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.  Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. “

 ~ C. S. Lewis ~

Trying to navigate the tricky line of when and how to reopen our country for life is complicated.  As articles  such as this point out, there are widely divergent views.  As articles rarely point out, it isn’t necessarily an either or situation.  Maybe we aren’t faced only with massive loss of life due to the pandemic or total economic and political meltdown due to the pandemic.  Maybe we’re faced with both.  Maybe we’re faced with neither, but rather a  milder mixture of the two.  Only time will tell, and we have to make the best choices we can.

But in the aforementioned article I find it fascinating that fear is now cited as a reason for not opening things back up again.  People are afraid, the logic would seem to go, and pushing them to return to work is going to cause them actual pain and damage.  We’ve all been traumatized, in other words.  Shell-shocked.   PTSD.  Whatever you want to call it.  As a nation we’ve been bludgeoned into a fragile psychological condition that now needs to be tended to softly and gently through continued government payouts rather than the cold, harsh reality of economic (particularly capitalistic) mechanisms.

That’s part of my fascination with what our media has done over the past two months.  You can argue about whether it was at the bequest of (some) of the political powers that be or whether it drove (some) of the political powers that be to their current stance on how to move forward.

First, yes.  People are afraid.  Some of them are terrified.  Nearly all of them are nervous.  If not for themselves than on behalf of others.  But that fear has been driven by our media and our politicians.  I’ll be lenient in granting that initially that fear might have been justified when we didn’t really know what was happening other than that a lot of people were dying in China and Italy.  But the fear went beyond that, and continues to go beyond that.  Fear is what should keep us locked in our houses.  Fear is what should keep us behind face masks.  Fear is what should keep us six feet apart from one another.  Fear is what should prompt  us to isolate not just for ourselves but out of fear we might somehow expose someone else to the virus who would be more vulnerable.

But this fear has been stoked steadily for two solid months.  Only recently have headlines in newspapers begun to mention other topics.  Still COVID-related stories are the majority of what we see and hear in the news.  Fear is natural, but people have been made afraid as well.  When fear is  all you push, don’t be surprised that people become fearful.  But also don’t then use  that fear to justify furthering policies that will only reinforce and strengthen the fear.

Now fear is not a glamorous thing.  It never has been in human history, but here’s part of the weirdness.  We’ve been made to feel as though our cowering in our houses is somehow brave.  We’re doing brave work as we lose our jobs and our businesses and fall back on unemployment and welfare.  That’s brave.

But it’s not.  It’s sad.  It might be necessary to some extent.  But  it’s not brave.  In part because very few people chose  to lose their job or their life’s work.  We were forced to stay home.  Ordered to.  Threatened with fines or imprisonment if we disobeyed.  We were shouted at through bullhorns and from helicopters over the beaches.  We were stigmatized by our fellow citizens.  This is not bravery.  At best it can be called obedience, but simply following orders is not necessarily brave in and of itself.

How can this be?

Because while we are told we are somehow brave and strong for ordering our food to go, we have also been inundated with real images and definitions of bravery.  Doctors and first responders get most of that glory.  They’re on the front lines, we’re told, fighting against the Coronavirus to keep us all safe.  That’s the definition of bravery.  It’s not an incorrect definition, either.  And that definition gets extended to a far lesser extent to those who work in essential industries.  Grocery store clerks and Amazon warehouse employees and all the other people who keep working so that those who have the ability to work at home or are already retired can order their food and groceries delivered and feel brave.  We’re told what bravery looks like, and it shows us that we ourselves have not been brave.

But we could have been.  And we could still be.

But it’s going to take the same mechanisms to change us that were used to create the fearful, nervous population we’ve become.

If the media and the politicians quit trying to paralyze us with fear and instead do what America has traditionally done – turn people loose to be heroic.  To go back to their jobs and bring their employees back.  Wear masks.  Avoid hugs and social distance.   So be it.  But be brave about it, not fearful.  America exists uniquely in history because it empowers people rather than disarms them.  You want to launch a business?  Go for it.  There’s no issues of pedigree or governmental control that should be able to stop you.  If you succeed, you might become wealthy and others might benefit from your drive and the product or service you offer.  If nobody wants what you’re offering, you’re free to change directions and try something else.

There’s the risk of failure to be sure, but the potential rewards of even moderate success are almost unheard of in massive portions of the rest of the world.  And people from all over the world still yearn and dream to  come to America to have this  freedom.  The freedom to be brave.  The freedom to succeed.  Even the freedom to fail.

Quit scaring people  into staying home while lauding the virtues of those who don’t.  Yes, they’re essential all right.  But in employing those terms you’ve just decimated the vast majority of your population with the reality they aren’t essential.  What they have to offer isn’t as good as or necessary as what doctors and nurses and policemen offer.

But this isn’t true.

Those people  are able to offer what they offer because other people offer things those people need.  Bookstores to order books to either grow in their knowledge and skill or relax and unwind and escape from the stressfulness of their career.  People who can cook great meals because doctors don’t have time to.   People who create spaces for people to relax and be together in like restaurants and coffee shops.   In myriad ways people contribute to the greater good, and to draw a  line with a magic marker that says these people are essential (whether they want to be or not) and the rest of you aren’t is just another way of instilling fear.  Destroying self-worth.  Turning people fearful.

Life is full of risks.  Full of dangers.  We have nowhere near the level of control we’d like to have, or even think we have and this is true of individuals as well as governments.  A great deal of the fear at play in our culture right now is driven by coming face-to-face with mortality, with the idea that we can die at any time and not necessarily be able to stop it.  We are mortal and frail.

That recognition leads to one of two courses.  One is fear.  Hiding and cowering and trying to protect ourselves from anything and anyone that could be dangerous.  Only to discover  that everything and everyone – even ourselves – can be dangerous, can’t be had or enjoyed without risk of harm physically or emotionally or psychologically.  Safety is an illusion because keeping yourself safe from one set of things opens you up to risk from another set of things.

The other course is to develop bravery.  Courage.  A willingness to go out and do what needs to be done, or to do what you’re able to do.  Knowing you might fail, but knowing you might also succeed.  Being rewarded for your willingness to take risks or innovate rather than simply do what other people tell you to do.

Fear is natural.  But fear can either be cultivated and nurtured or it can be weakened and sapped.  More than any previous challenges in or to our nation, this is the crossroads we stand at.  Do we remain fearful, waiting for others who are brave and strong to rescue us?  Or do we pick up our shovels or rakes or cable crimpers or bar  code scanners or measuring cups and set about rescuing ourselves and, in the process, rescuing one another as well?  Do we not only tell stories about knights facing great dangers, but encourage one another to put on their armor and mount their steeds and head out onto the field of battle for themselves?

Life isn’t fair, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t safe.  What equality, what comfort, and what protection we’ve been able to create is only because of generations of men and women just like us doing what needed to be done and doing it well.  Demonstrating not just bravery and courage but also how essential they are.  Why should we wait for someone else to tell us we’re needed or not needed?  Isn’t that how great swaths of governments around the world and throughout history have operated?  Telling people what they had to do or how they had to do it instead of letting the people figure it out for themselves?  Isn’t that why people want to come here, become Americans?  So they can make those decisions for themselves?  Be free to work hard and reap the benefits of that hard work?  Fail but learn from that failure and grow stronger and wiser for their next effort?

This is the home of the brave, according to our national anthem.  It’s time we remember that.  Claim it.  And start acting like it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving and Taking Away

April 25, 2020

Last night as I checked my e-mail before bed I noticed a message from our county regarding sheltering in place restrictions.  Curiously, the title of the e-mail and the message is County Modifies Stay at Home Order: Municipal Golf Club Opens April 25.

It certainly sounds like good news!  It links (I hate when e-mails contain hyperlinks to resources but then you can’t actually click on them because the message is really an image rather than text so you have to manually type out the link in another window!) to this document.  The document mentions golf clubs in passing but it’s hardly the emphasis by any means.  The document explains an easing of stay safe at home orders and which businesses are now allowed to re-open given social distancing and other precautions.  It all sounds good, until you look through the attachments where the details are spelled out.

And really, the main thing that is spelled out has to do with faith-based services.  Faith-based services and golf courses are both included in Appendix A as allowed to open/meet, and both have the most detailed specifications on what they have to do in this regard.  Faith-based services are Appendix A, Item 19, subsections a, b and c.  Here, faith-based services are only allowed if they are either online or meet the following criteria:

  1. Are only outdoors
  2. Everyone stays in their cars (no more than five to a car, all from the same household)
  3. Six feet minimum  between cars
  4. Nobody leaves the vehicles they came in
  5. Nobody is allowed to use a restroom on site
  6. Nothing – including food items – can be transferred to vehicle occupants

Such restrictions are nowhere imposed on any of the other businesses and organizations listed.  Particularly galling to me is the specification about nothing being transferred to vehicle occupants, and food items being specifically mentioned.  I don’t know how else to interpret that other than a prohibition on Holy Communion.

I can walk into a McDonalds and maintain social distancing and they can hand me food to eat.  I can walk into a grocery store and pick up produce that has been passed by or even touched by perhaps countless other people.  Yet there is no provision that a church could meet the social distancing requirements as well as safe food handling requirements?

For the first time (at least locally) I feel as though the restrictions are being focused specifically on religious organizations.  Certainly many other places are also affected and I disagree with that as well.  However to curtail religious freedoms that are Constitutionally guaranteed when similar curtailments are not placed on other organizations seems blatantly discriminatory at best and illegal at worst.  To tout the freedom to golf while essentially denying the Constitutional freedom to worship is twisted.

Some may not see how these restrictions are discriminatory or a violation of Constitutionally protected freedoms.  Understandable, and I’m sure that there will be a diversity of opinions even among Christians on this interpretation.

It is forcing us to change how we worship.  I believe this is intentional, even if intended only for a temporary period of time (an indeterminate period of time, however).  It is is a recognition that worship, unlike grocery shopping, is a communal experience.  I may bump into someone I know at Trader Joe’s and stop for a chat.  But in worship I know I will  see other people I know and love and that is part of the intention.  While American Christianity has done much to disintegrate the communal nature of the faith through a lop-sided emphasis on Jesus-and-me theology and personal salvation, at its purest worship is the place where our righteousness through Christ before God the Father draws us  back into proper relationship with one another and this isn’t just a theoretical or theological speculation but something that is lived out.   It’s tangible.

Ironically one of the reading’s for next Sunday is from the end of Acts 2 and describes how the Christians lived in light of faith in Jesus as the Son of God raised from the dead for their sins.  It is a beautiful passage but also an inherently communal one.

And it is this communal nature of worship that is being gutted by the restrictions mentioned above.  And it is compounded with the absurd elevation of freedom to golf over freedom of religion.

I – and many other churches – have voluntarily suspended worship services.  I don’t believe the government either State or Federally has the right to force us to end our worship services.  I have voluntarily suspended them.  Voluntarily agreed to limit our Constitutional rights in the interest of public safety.  Our congregation has the space and the ability to meet the social distancing requirements imposed on other organizations.  We can provide the hand sanitizers and soap and water.  We can begin worshiping again while still agreeing to the questionably arbitrary demands of the State that we substantially modify how we worship.  And frankly, nearly all of my members are of an age where they may opt not to attend just yet – which is their freedom in the Gospel.

But it’s a Gospel freedom, not a State-controlled freedom.  And Christians throughout history and around the world have understood there is an important distinction between the two.  To prohibit us from worship and the Sacraments when we’re free to go to Burger King or the grocery store or the golf course is inexcusable, and it will be interesting to see how other religious leaders react to these mandates.

 

When the Emperor Tells You to Strip

April 13, 2020

You might be familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen fable The Emperor’s New Clothes.  In it an emperor is convinced he is wearing an amazing new suit of clothes that will be invisible to anyone who is stupid or unworthy of their position.  In fear of being seen as stupid, nobody around the Emperor wants to tell him he’s naked.  People play along with the Emperor’s whims rather than risk their social status or rank or public opinion.  A child is the only honest one, perhaps in part because the child has nothing to lose, but mostly because children are sometimes able to call a thing for what it is when nobody else will.

A cautionary tale about the dangers of power and the influence power has on the otherwise common sense of people.  But what if instead of just pretending to admire the Emperor’s clothes, you were commanded to strip naked as well?  What then?

It sure feels like that is what Americans – and perhaps most of the world – are being asked to do in fear of COVID-19.  We are being asked to sacrifice our personal economic well-being and the well-being of our families in order to stay physically safe from a terrifying and mysterious infection.  Numbers are paraded out unceasingly to show us how dangerous COVID-19 is.  But the numbers are often portrayed in isolation from any other numbers that would provide context for them.

For instance, headlines recently blared that America surpassed Italy’s COVID-19 death toll.  Since we all remember the headlines about Italy a few weeks ago when COVID-19 hit there, this sounds terrifying!  But it assumes that America was in a better position than Italy to deal with COVID-19, which I doubt is the case (or the case for much of any country), and it ignores the fact that the US has six times the population of Italy, so it seems only reasonable the number of deaths here would be higher.  It also ignores the fact that Italy currently is on a downward trend in terms of  number of infections and deaths.  Yet without any other information, the headlines just hype fear and worry.

But news half-stories are the basis driving our government officials to insist on forcing businesses to close and lay off people.  We are told it is worth destroying our economy, putting millions of people out of work and on unemployment, and destroying untold numbers of small, medium, and even a few large companies because the alternative is the danger of spreading COVID-19, which we are told is more contagious than the flu and more deadly as well.  Two trillion dollars has already been spent in the US on COVID-19 relief and far more actually has and will be spent in terms of state of emergency spending and other forms of government relief to citizens and businesses (oh, and don’t forget banks).

But let’s examine these claims.

In terms of contagiousness, we are daily given new statistics about continuing rates of infection of COVID-19.  Some sources say the rate of infections is slowing and other sources don’t.  But both are using numbers that are, charitably at best, inadequate or, at worst, wrong.  The numbers reported are newly confirmed cases.  Confirmed cases occur when someone tests positive for COVID-19, either alive or dead.  But not everyone with symptoms of COVID-19 is tested.  Despite repeated assurances of widespread testing being made available, testing is still reserved only for those with severe symptoms.  While I don’t know anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 (or anyone who knows anyone for that matter), I do know of at least one person who was refused testing because their symptoms weren’t acute enough to warrant testing.  I’m positive that person didn’t have COVID-19, but the fact that they weren’t tested is a reminder that testing is far from ubiquitous.  Tests are only for those who evidence the full-blown symptoms.

And tigers.

So the numbers being cited of infection rates can hardly be accurate since testing is so spotty and limited.  There are two conclusions we can draw from this.  One would be that we are incredibly good at visually identifying the tell-tale signs of COVID-19 and excluding by external observation cases that aren’t, so the infection rates being reported are essentially accurate because we’re actually testing most of the people who actually have it.  In which case, the more lethal nature of COVID-19 is substantiated because we’re likely identifying most of the actual cases of COVID-19.

Personally, I find that hard to believe.

The other conclusion has two versions.  One is that the reported rates of infection are representative and can be extrapolated out to  the entire population of the country/world.  This of course results in much higher levels of infection and much lower mortality rates.  Or, since we’re only testing extreme cases, the reported  rates of infection are not at all accurate and infection rates are much higher across the board, which drastically reduces the mortality rate associated with COVID-19.

And if COVID-19 isn’t nearly as lethal as it’s being portrayed, why are we destroying our entire economy and  Lord knows what else to contain the infection levels? Are there other options to shuttering an entire economy and trying to force people to stay home as Constitutional rights are violated?

Our county has – as of the 2010 census, roughly 424,000 people in it.  There have been 264 identified cases of COVID-19 as of yesterday.  Over 80% of the identified cases are either fully recovered or in recovery at home.  There have been two deaths in the county thus far.  Yet the entire county is supposed to shelter in place and embrace the drastic measures applied in much higher infection areas and cities.

Things just don’t add up.  I’m more than happy to be educated in why my assessment of this is wrong.  And certainly I know the issue is more threatening to people older than I am (though I’m snugly in the middle of the two age ranges with the highest reported rates of infection in my county).  I know in some more congested areas of the country things are worse – that only makes sense.  Yet the same precautions insisted upon in many of the hardest hit urban areas are expected from our county as well?  The people I know are out of work and hoping for unemployment for a localized rate of infection that is ridiculously small.  In the most recent data available (2017) there were 53 deaths in our county in one year from the flu and/or flu-like illnesses.  Nearly 30 times as many deaths in a single flu season than COVID-19 thus far.  Certainly more people could die of COVID-19, but still.  At this point, the flu is far more dangerous in our county than COVID-19.

It leads one to wonder how much of this is based simply on the novelty of COVID-19.  After all, the flu is no big deal.  It’s been around forever.  We’ve learned to live with it and we’re comfortable with the idea that a lot of people get sick every year  from it (~19 million nationwide) and a lot of people die from it (~24,000 nationwide).  There’s nothing we can do about it (apparently), so we just deal with it.  Oh, and get your flu shots, we’re told.  Even though the 24,000 fatalities expected this flu season are going to happen despite wide scale efforts to convince people to get their flu shots.

But COVID-19 comes along and it’s new and sexy and we can mount a massive effort to provide a vaccine for it, despite the fact we lost interest in creating vaccines for other Corona-family viruses like SARS and MERS.  Once the epidemic or pandemic subsides, there’s no money to be made in funding a vaccine effort, apparently.

I understand different people have different tolerances levels in terms of anxiety and fear and health-related issues.  But when the government demands we cease work and shutter our businesses because of a medical issue that might be scary because it spreads so quickly but is no more dangerous than the flu, that’s a lot like the emperor demanding everyone else strip naked.  At some point, somebody has to stand up and state the obvious.

This is overkill.  The economic and financial damage is going to be far greater, longer-reaching and harder to recover from than the physical health damage.  It’s time to start thinking how to best continue to protect those most vulnerable to this illness while allowing the rest of the country to get back to work.  It’s time for all of us – including our leaders – to put our clothes back on, acknowledging that perhaps we slowed the spread of the infection through these drastic measures, but that drastic measures can’t  be sustained indefinitely when the illness proves to be far less devastating than originally feared.

 

 

 

 

 

St. COVID’s Day

April 6, 2020

March 17th.  St. Patrick’s Day.  This was the first year the BCA moved the annual world tournament from July to March.  The first year as well that my teammates were all able to attend, and so the first time we’d be competing as a team in several years.  We’ve been anticipating this time for months, saving and preparing.

I imagined St. Patrick’s Day in Vegas to be something certainly worth observing.  In a city so  obsessed with consumption and excess, I was certain there would be plenty of good people-watching to be done.  And of course, a few Irish whiskeys along the way perhaps.  But not too many, as the team competition would be starting the next morning and we would want to be sharp and ready for the the already formidable task of having to start shooting pool at 9 am instead of in the late afternoon or evening as most of us were more  used to.

But instead, as the sun was going down over the Nevada desert I was hightailing it out of Las Vegas instead of celebrating.  The team event was cancelled as of Sunday evening.  We had remained in Vegas through Tuesday for my teammate who was still competing in the individual’s tournament (and ended up winning 3rd place in his division – not bad being able to say you’re the third best player in your division in the world!).  But as of 5 pm or so he had finished, gotten his check, had his picture taken, and it was time to leave.

I drove up to Vegas the previous week alone, knowing I’d be driving two teammates and their gear back.  But now I was also driving our league president and his wife back.  The hotels were shutting down and kicking everyone out.  Rather than wait another day for their flight back to Santa Barbara they squeezed into my SUV and I used my Tetris skills to fit their gear in as well.  It was a cozy bunch headed into the sunset.

We were maybe half an hour out of town when the classic rock station interrupted their playlist for a live broadcast from the governor of Nevada.  For the next 20 minutes or so we listened to him talk about what the state of Nevada would be doing immediately to respond to the threat of COVID-19.  Yes, the hotels would be shut down by noon the next day.  All gaming machines in the state would be turned off in a matter of hours at midnight.  People were being ordered to stay at home as much as possible.  It was clear an entire state was essentially closing, hunkering down and hoping that by doing so the spread of COVID-19 would be slowed, and fewer people would get sick and die from it.

We sat in stunned silence.

Good zombie movies often center around an unlikely collection of people forced to work together to survive.  That’s all well and good for a movie, but as we raced towards the sinking sun I couldn’t  help but think that this isn’t the group of people I would have hoped to be my apocalypse survival squad.  Not that there weren’t some good skill sets here.  Our league president served in the US Navy.  One of my teammates was good with his hands.  Another had experience in caring for people with disabilities.  It was a good, gritty crew to some extent.  But I couldn’t help but lament, as we drove by mostly empty gas stations and restaurants and Motel 6’s with their lights turned off that I would have preferred to be facing the apocalypse with my family, even if we weren’t quite as gritty and our survival chances might not be as good.

That ride, and listening to the speech from the governor is likely something I’ll never forget.  Unlike any experience in my life.  Unlike 9/11.  Unlike housing busts and recessions, presidential assassination attempts or even the vague background threat of nuclear war as a child and young adult.  This was something different.

Three weeks later it remains something fundamentally different.  How long can a country shut down?  How long are people expected to shelter in place and avoid one another?  What are the long-term costs to our country not just economically but socially and politically?  We don’t have any road maps for these sorts of considerations.  As competing models and evolving models of how the infection will play out in our country shift and change, something seems clear.

COVID-19 will have to be a pretty big deal.  If it turns out to be a smaller issue than anticipated, if it turns out to have the overall impact of a really bad flu season, there’s going to be hell to pay.  Or at least there should be.  There will need to be some very specific repercussions against a government ordering people to shut their businesses down and destroy their livelihoods rather than guiding people but allowing them to make decisions that seem to make sense.

Either COVID-19 is devastating to our nation as an actual health crisis, or it will be devastating to our political structure and the people who sacrificed untold small businesses out of fear or paranoia.  It’s possible that both things could happen, though I pray not.  But understanding whether COVID-19 is ultimately dangerous enough to very possibly destroy an entire economic and political system is something we aren’t going to know until after the fact.

It’s popular to compare COVID-19 to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1920.  The Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans in less than two years.  We’re currently at not quite 13,000 deaths.  This is, of course tragic, but also confusing, as an undetermined number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 are also strongly related to underlying and pre-existing health conditions.  At the same time, there have been an estimated 24,000 deaths from the flu through the end of March, and I assume that some number of  those deaths also involve compromised health situations.  Depending on what news reports you choose to believe, we may already be seeing the COVID-19 infection rate slowing in the US.

It will be painful and fascinating in the coming years to understand better whether we reacted appropriately to COVID-19 or not.  Whether the economic and political damage incurred is something we can recover from or will lead us into new economic and political realities couldn’t  have foreseen.  Most zombie movies never play out the long game of community and state and nation and world rebuilding.  Nobody has the attention span for that.  Or  at least, we didn’t used to.

Hopefully we do now.  Because we’re all in this together, an unlikely group of people thrust together and required to work together to survive.  I pray we’re up  to the task, and careful about the precedents that are knowingly or unknowingly being set right now.  I hope our skills, Tetris or otherwise, are up to the task.  And I hope people are willing to work together towards these ends rather than continuing to isolate and scream at one another through their face masks and social media masks.  There are challenges ahead but also opportunities, if we are wise enough to discern enough and brave enough to take them.  Hopefully the darkest part of this night-desert-drive is over, and we’ll be seeing the sun coming up shortly.

 

Preaching to the Church

April 2, 2020

The Los  Angeles Times today ran an editorial critical of religious leaders (it only mentions Christian religious leaders, curiously) who are not fans of shelter-in-place demands and how they affect congregations.  The editorial criticizes Christian leaders who either disobey restrictions on large gatherings or are critical of such restrictions.  Such behavior is characterized in the editorial as reckless and defiant.

The editorial openly questions assertions that Christians in large worship venues could gather safely for worship, still maintaining proper social distancing recommendations.  Perhaps the editors have never been in a large worship space?  If we can practice social distancing to obtain groceries and other necessities, why would the assumption be it is impossible to do so in a worship setting?  There is a definite bias here that is unsupported in any meaningful way beyond an obvious belief that Christians gathering together for encouragement and comfort in the faith is not vital to them.

Of course the editorial has to bring Trump into this, equating the religious with Trump, as well as sneering at the “religious values” of human and divine fellowship entailed in Christian worship.

The editorial concludes by citing the publication Christianity Today, which recently in an editorial sided with those church leaders and congregations who have decided to suspend (not close) in-person activities because “The Church remains the Church online, too.”  The Times editorial ends with the assertion that continuing to meet for worship  during this time is irreligious.

Such a flimsy treatment of such a complicated issue as freedom of religion and the life of faith is unhelpful,  at best.  Using the generalized language of this editorial, houses of worship ought to  be closed every year from September to March or so because of flu season, wherein 19 million some Americans are infected and in the neighborhood of 10,000 die.  Annually.

I’d like to think  that a more informed and even-handed approach to a very complicated subject could be had instead of a brief editorial.  But apparently it won’t be had in the Times.

Suspending Worship

March 20, 2020

After some unofficial legal counsel from two Christian attorneys, I’ve made the difficult decision to suspend worship service this coming Sunday.  To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time churches have been told not to gather for worship since the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918.

I do this in obedience to Romans 13, not detecting in the governor’s Executive Order anything specifically targeting religious institutions.  I remain wary, all too aware of how reasonable laws can be turned to troublesome ends.  I am sad, because of the comfort only possible where and when the people of God gather together in praise and prayer, responding to our Creator and Sustainer’s good gifts to us in Word and Sacrament.

But most of all I remain hopeful.  Not simply of the passing of this virus, which history teaches us will indeed pass one way or the other.  Not simply for a return to normalcy, as by many standards normalcy is problematic in and of itself.  But ultimately that God will receive glory and honor as people are shaken from the doldrums of routines and forced to confront things of a much larger scale.  There is an opportunity for God the Holy Spirit to be at work in and through his people and churches to give witness in acts of love and service to the ultimate, sacrificial love of God for his creation through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus the Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria.  

N-33-20

March 19, 2020

The Governor of California tonight issued Executive Order N-33-20.  It makes mandatory the closure of non-essential businesses, defining 16 key industries that MUST be maintained and are not subject to what amounts to a general business shutdown.  Those 16 industries are identified in this document.

The Executive Order lays out the rationale first off,  then explains that the Governor does, in fact, have the authority to make such Executive Orders and bring to bear governmental resources to enforce them.  It then references a Health Order  from the California Department of Public Health on the same issue.

Both the Governor’s order and the CDPH order it is based on deal primarily with the issue of who should be going to work and who should not.  If you aren’t in one of the 16 defined critical infrastructure industries, your job is non-essential and you should close your business.  Neither order specifies any cutoffs for gatherings, but simply indicates people should stay home except to work in one of the pre-defined industries, or to otherwise facilitate authorized necessary activities.  I cannot find a definition of authorized necessary activities that wouldn’t simply be repetitive with the key industry guidelines.

It seems people are allowed to go out for necessary things – to obtain medication or medical care, to buy food and other necessities of life from those places like grocery stores and convenience stores that aren’t simply allowed to continue operating but are commanded to.

None of which addresses the issue of what religious groups should do during this time.

I know quite a few churches in town and in nearby towns that made the decision to suspend worship even before this Executive Order.  The question in my mind is whether that is now mandatory by law, or whether it falls into the nebulous zone of authorized necessary activities.  I have little doubt the Governor and other state officials would say it does not.  But since they haven’t clarified the issue, it is undefined.

The Center for Disease Control has recommended no more than 50 people gather in any one place unless absolutely necessary, and the White House recommends no gatherings with more than 10 people, and churches that violate this are getting press attention.

But these are recommendations, not laws.  And in general, I think they are wise.

The question becomes is worship a necessary activity?  And by what definition?  Again, I have no doubt the government does not view worship (in any religion) as a necessary activity.  But how should Christians define worship?

I don’t fault congregations and pastors that have opted to suspend worship and other gatherings.  But I don’t personally feel called to follow that route.

At least not yet.

Should more clear language be forthcoming, or should someone explain to me how (since I’m not a lawyer) I am misunderstanding what the Executive Order says, then it seems to remain at my discretion as a religious leader as to whether I should suspend worship services.  As I read it, the language of the order seems to be as unclear as possible.  This prevents specific outrage (from, say, religious groups) but rather relies on a great deal of social pressure.

Worship is not a command for Christians, but it is a strong encouragement and a privilege we should not abandon lightly.  Hebrews 10:19-25 is very helpful in this regard.  It isn’t simply the legal technicality of must we worship, but the reminder that worship is a massive blessing.  It emphasizes the communal nature of our faith (note the we and us throughout).  It references confession and absolution (v.22).  It centers us in who and what our hope and faith is – hope and faith in Jesus Christ who has made forgiveness possible to us.  It is God the Father who holds us in his hands, and ultimately him who holds the power of all health and healing in his hands.  This is NOT to toss our worldly wisdom and knowledge out the door, but it is to hold in the proper tension.  Medicine and treatments and other things are blessings from God intended ultimately not simply to elongate our lives but to direct our hearts and minds back to the source of all life and health not simply temporally but eternally.  Worship is also an opportunity to focus us on what we are called to do each and every day – love God and love our neighbors (v.24).  This does not justify needless recklessness, but does remind us that many of the heroes of the faith were willing to set aside their own well-being in order to tend to the needs of others.

Because of all these things, we should not lightly abandon meeting together particularly during difficult and frightening times!  We can still be wise about close contact and social distancing as we gather for worship!

And of course the second text to consider here is Romans 13.  This passage insists that Christians are not exempt of civil authority, but should be subject to it.  Of course, this obedience is mandated up to the point at which civil authority contradicts the Word of God.  At that point, we must like Peter and the apostles insist that we must obey God rather than human beings! (Acts 5:29).

If this Executive Order does mean gathering for worship is illegal for the time being, then I in good conscience as a servant of Christ can (and should) cancel public worship.  For a period of time.  At some point though – whether a point defined by civil authority or not – I will also be equally compelled to begin calling the saints to gather for worship.  It is very possible for a civil law to begin as good and necessary but eventually be misused.  God-willing, that time will not come.

In the meantime, all of God’s people should be praying for the deliverance of the world from this new virus, and a speedy return to a healthier environment both spiritually as well as physically.