Archive for the ‘Community’ Category

Contributing in the Time of COVID-19

March 26, 2020

I’ve been struggling with what I have to contribute during this time of COVID-19, social distancing, and the temporary  suspension of public worship.  A lot of churches are recording or streaming worship services.  Many of them seem to be larger congregations with a fair amount of technical resources, staff, and worship resources.  I’m sure you can find pretty much any style of worship from highly liturgical to very contemporary.

In light of this, the idea of recording a full worship service which quite easily could just be me and perhaps a musician seems superfluous.  Are people going to sing solo at home?

My particular gifts – such as they are – lie in preaching and teaching.  So thus far I’ve focused my energies on how to provide these gifts to my people (or at least most of my people) via the Internet.  While worship is comforting, it seems somewhat odd to simply broadcast it being done without anyone participating.  Corporate worship is just that – corporate.  It is the gathering of God’s people together to receive the gifts of God in Word and Sacrament and respond in prayer and praise.  Trying to replicate or imitate a gathering for people quarantined at home is complicated at best, and perhaps misguided at worst?  I’m struggling to figure my way through it.

Teaching can be done through the Internet, asynchronously.  I did that professionally for many years, and a Bible study is not much different in that respect than an online lecture.  Likewise a sermon can be streamed as a sermon – while delivered to a group of people – is listened to individually.  It is crafted with a group of people in mind (and sometimes with specific individuals within that group in mind!), but it is listened to by each individual person separately.  Not necessarily physically separate, but it is heard by individuals.  So it can be recorded and listened to at home as well.  Opportunities for interaction can’t be duplicated unless you have some sort of interactive medium for that, and I’m going to experiment with Zoom to that end tomorrow hopefully.

I suppose it’s major events like a pandemic that force the Church as a whole to grapple with these questions as doing what we’re used to doing becomes impossible or problematic.  God’s people need to be reminded of his grace and mercy even in a time of fear and sickness.  We need to be encouraged to not let our fear overwhelm our opportunities to love our neighbors.  We need to have our focus continually refocused on what our hope is, the return of our Lord.  Worship is one means of doing this, but it seems weird to ‘pretend’ to worship together when we really aren’t.

That’s not meant to be an indictment of those who are recording or live-streaming their worship services.  It’s just me thinking out loud about all of this and trying to figure out how  I respond as a shepherd during this time of isolation.  I’d love to hear other thoughts on the subject, if you’re willing to share!

Holy Communion and COVID-19

March 21, 2020

As previously noted, our congregation is suspending corporate worship for the time being.  I make this decision only because I am specifically ordered to by the civil authority and because I do  not sense in this order any intention to suppress God’s people gathering together as God’s people, but only a desire to temporarily avoid gatherings that might spread infection.

This necessitates I as a pastor and my congregational leadership and members thinking about how we carry on as the body of Christ in this time.  I’ve intentionally refused to livestream or record worship services to  post  on Facebook or YouTube because  the sermon I deliver each Sunday is for my congregation.  People that by and large I know fairly well, and who know me.  When we speak to each other, we speak in the context of that relationship and trust, and the sermon is no different.  What I say to them and how I say it to them is in part conditioned by my relationship to them.

Therefore, for someone not part of our immediate community of faith to listen in could be problematic.  Without the relationship and trust, they don’t know how to hear properly what I’m saying.  This isn’t  their fault – at a very real level the words aren’t for them.  They’re for my people.  The Word of God is for everyone, to be sure. But a sermon as an explication and application of  the Word of God has to be crafted and fashioned with a hearer in mind.  Paul’s message to the Greeks on Mars Hill (Acts 17) would hardly have been appropriate to hearers in Jerusalem.

So I’ve maintained for a long time that if we’re going to post things online, they need to be designed for digestion online, by a community I cannot know, and that cannot know me.  The message has to be focused on the Word as it might apply to anyone, rather than the Word as it applies to my small flock of regular hearers.

Enter COVID-19.

Now we’re scrambling to find ways to allow our members to receive the Word of God in a sermon (as well as Bible studies and other things).  We’re going to experiment with livestreaming to our very small congregational group on Facebook tomorrow.  We’re also  arranging for  a phone-in, conference-call type solution for our many members without access to  either Facebook or the Internet.

But one question remains – what about Holy Communion?

Well, that’s going to have to wait.

While there have been efforts made over time to figure  out how to bring Communion to people  when they cannot gather for it together, those solutions are problematic to varying degrees.  Either they end up breaching the very reasons we aren’t gathering together in the first place (the possible spread  of infection) or they somehow alter what happens in Holy Communion.  Our denominational leadership prepared a brief statement indicating why some of these practices are problematic and to be avoided, while reminding us that for centuries, Holy Communion was an infrequently celebrated event.  We receive God’s grace and forgiveness daily, and while we should not willingly despise or avoid Holy Communion, when we must forego it for a period of time it does  not damage us spiritually, even though we might long to partake in it.

For now, patience.  And prayer that this outbreak will subside quickly and we can once again gather as the body of Christ to receive his good gifts to us in Word AND Sacrament.

 

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.

 

It’s Not About the Money (But it is)

March 5, 2020

California has suffered the first death from the corona virus.  News reports indicate an elderly adult with underlying health conditions died from this newly identified virus.

In the meantime, without much fanfare and despite increasingly dramatic efforts to convince the population of the benefits of  flu shots, over 10,000 Americans have died from the flu so far this influenza season.  Ten thousand deaths, 180,000 hospitalizations and 19 million estimated cases of the flu this flu season, but California declares a state of emergency over one death.

Governor Newsom insists the move isn’t about money, but about mobilizing resources.  Said resources including additional Federal support, of course.  The City of Los Angeles also declared a health emergency as they have seven reported cases.  All of which certainly has nothing to do, I’m sure, with the fact that the US House of Representatives approved a bill for $8.3 billion dollars to be used in dealing with corona virus issues, and President Trump could sign off on it as soon as Friday.

The flu doesn’t qualify as a health emergency apparently.  Otherwise the more than 150 flu deaths in the state alone surely would have prompted a state of emergency declaration.  Money appears to be plentiful, as just a few weeks ago Governor Newsom was demanding $1.4 billion in new appropriations to fight homelessness.   And of course he wants to expand health care coverage to undocumented senior citizens at a cost tag of perhaps $80 million.  And facing the prospect of reduced incoming Federal funds because California doesn’t want to go along with Federal immigration laws, I can totally see how the decision to declare a state of emergency has nothing at all to do with money.

We’re apparently swimming in that.

 

Dances

March 4, 2020

I step out of my office to greet the person I’m told has stopped by to see me.  One of my eyes on the clock because I have a standing Communion call to leave for in just a few minutes, the other eye quickly sizing up the young man standing to meet me, all pimples and youth.  Nothing notable about him in any way, as he asks if I have a few minutes to talk with him about an issue he’s having with his family.  I don’t consciously think I have enough time for a counseling session, but I invite him into my office as the music starts.

We tap our respective toes as we get a feel for the tune being played, and then he steps out boldly onto the dance floor.  He spins and turns, his feet moving steadily and not without experience.  A car breakdown in Fresno a week or more ago.  A week’s delay getting it diagnosed to no avail.  Bussing his family down to San Diego to buy a car (flourish the keys, still with what looks to be a dealer label on them).  A pause, and then a new set of turns.  Traveling back now to Berkeley (which he had said was home when I first met him).  Now passing through Santa Barbara and out of funds.  The bridge of the tune arrives and he lists out all the various local organizations he’s already contacted in search of gas for the car and food for the family (who hasn’t eaten since yesterday), moving into the finale in that he could only hope that churches might be places where someone could get some help  in a situation like this.

A bit winded, he steps back as the musicians queue up the next song.  Not quite as spry and quick as the last one.  I assume the proper  stance and begin moving my feet in time with the music.  We don’t keep cash on hand for situations like this.  Lots of other places in town we normally refer people to.  But I have $20  on me I’ll give you.  I know it’s not very much but hopefully it will help.  Godspeed and safe travels.  Ending with a flourish as I give him directions to the nearest gas station.

We bow and he leaves and I prepare my Communion kit.

I don’t believe any of what he just told me.  None of it added up to anything approaching a coherent story.  I wonder at times why people aren’t just more honest.  Look, I screwed up my budgeting for the month and I don’t have enough to make ends meet until my next payday.  I blew my last paycheck on women and booze and rent’s due Friday.  Of course these are not the sorts of things that elicit sympathy.  But if he’s presuming on the church to be a place of sympathy by default, how much is that really needed?

Because he’s assuming I’ll allow him to be dishonest.   To not ask questions.  To not point out the logical inconsistencies in the elaborate tale of woe he’s just spun.  To not point out how his footwork was off and he couldn’t keep rhythm if his life depended on it.  He’s assuming that I’ll simply go through the moves of my dance, which are more than likely going to result in at least some small amount of money for him, since of course I need to preserve the dignity and reputation of the Church by not sending him away empty-handed.  After all, I’d hate to think I might have become a hurdle to the Gospel, whether he’s received it yet or it’s  on the way.

We know our parts and the steps that keep the dance moving along amicably, that avoids any unpleasant missteps or gaffes.  He goes on his way with a little money.  I’m happy to be done and on to my Communion call.  Later I prayed for him and his family and their situation, whichever or all or none of those elements might be real or imagined or exaggerated or invented.  For whatever he really needed and I couldn’t provide in the moment because we were both so focused on our feet and the music and the cues.

 

 

 

Vibrant Christian Homes

March 3, 2020

Our denomination has a series of different para-organizations and publications that go out on a regular basis.  One such organization is called Lutheran Hour Ministries.  LHM provides a variety of resources in a variety of formats on a variety of topics, all aimed at helping Christians live out their faith with an eye towards sharing the Gospel with those who do not yet know Jesus the Christ as their Lord and Savior.  I’ve used some of their materials over the years.  But their recent newspaper caught my eye with the caption Do You Have a Spiritually Vibrant Home?

I have to admit, it piqued my interest.  Based on cooperation with Barna Institute and drawing on some of their research, LHM has put together some materials to assist families in creating spiritually vibrant homes.  As much as that may sound like a bad motif from the Home Shopping Network, I am a firm believer that the majority of faith formation – or lack thereof – happens in the home, rather than in the pews at church.  A few takeaways from the article and materials:

They break households into three major categories based on three major behaviors.  The first is spiritual practices, meaning regular prayer and Bible reading as a family through the week.  The second key behavior is spiritual conversations, meaning the household talks about God and faith on a weekly basis together.  The final behavior is hospitality, meaning welcoming non-family guests over on a regular basis (at least a few times a month).  Based on these three key behaviors, households fall into one of three survey categories:

  • Spiritually vibrant – practice all three key behaviors.  Only 25% of households seem to fall into this category
  • Devotional – engage in spiritual practices and conversations but not so much hospitality
  • Dormant – don’t really engage in any of the three key behaviors

I haven’t investigated the materials yet, but I’m considering it.  You can look at them here.  The idea is that even if your household is not currently a spiritually vibrant place, with incremental changes over time it could be.  Obviously, this doesn’t allow a lot of room for personality types, which I think can be unfair.  But it’s a good way to think about the routines we establish and maintain in our households and how they impact our life of faith.

Perspective

February 1, 2020

The coronavirus outbreak in China is now a public health crisis in the United States.  I’m going to assume that what this essentially means is people traveling to and from China will now be subject to mandatory testing, evaluation, and/or quarantine to ensure they are not infected with the virus.  I can’t believe how much of my news feed seems dedicated to the terror of this new viral outbreak, and I can only imagine how much fear is being created by non-stop news reports in other media.

Some perspective.  There have been six confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the US so far.  Or more technically, six cases traced in some way to the current outbreak in China, which is where the virus was first identified as a new form of coronavirus.  There is a family of coronaviruses we already know about.  This is just a new one.

Six cases in the US and no deaths so far.

In China there are believed to be 11,000 cases of this particular coronavirus with a total of 200 deaths attributed to it.   In fact, by and large, this coronavirus is not a lethal one except in cases of complications.  But numbers cause people to panic.  One in 55 cases of the coronavirus in China have resulted in fatalities.

By point of comparison, the Centers for Disease Control released statistics on the influenza rates in the US.  Interesting details:

  • They estimate 19 million flu cases in the US alone during the 2019-2020 flu season so far
  • There have been 180,000 hospitalizations for flu-related issues in the US thus far this season
  • There have been 10,000 deaths associated with the flu  in the US thus far this season

The relationship of the flu virus to fatalities seems like a tricky one to me.  For instance, this news story highlighted the tragic and unexpected eath of a 34-year old woman from the flu.  However it also notes she had an undiagnosed pre-existing condition that contributed to the flu virus being fatal for her.  No mention of what that condition was, but it sounds to me like it wasn’t just “the flu” that killed her.

I wonder how many of the coronavirus fatalities were due not exclusively to the virus itself but to complicating factors that aren’t included or noted in the statistics?

To break down the numbers:

  • Roughly 1 in 17 people in the US get the flu – far more prevalent than the coronavirus thus far
  • Of those who do get the flu, only one in 10,000 dies from it (or  from complications associated with it, as noted above)

The CDC itself admits this flu season is pretty typical both in terms of the number of flu infections (both diagnosed and estimated) as well as the number of deaths resulting from it.  They claim there is no reliable data yet to determine whether the flu shot has been efficacious this season, but they claim the flu shot is always the best way to prevent flu and its potentially serious complications.   I’m not sure how they can make such a blanket statement, but there you go.  They also note that the major flu strains identified so far this season are all susceptible to FDA-approved antivirals.  Which means if you get the flu, it’s likely you will be greatly helped by an antiviral prescription.

There is no vaccine or treatment for the coronavirus or any of  it’s previously identified relatives.  Overwhelmingly if you get it, you’ll get flu-like symptoms that will go away with no long-term residual effects.  No more than an ordinary cold or flu, at least.

Try not to panic.  Especially if you aren’t traveling to China or spending time with sick people who have.  Turn the TV off and go outside for a breath of fresh air.  It will do you more good than digesting hours of panicked updates on the coronavirus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Need and Demand

January 15, 2020

This is an inspiring article talking about changes in the way restaurants handle excess food.  Instead of just throwing it away, there are a variety of organizations created to help them repurpose it without excess cost (man hours, etc.) to themselves.

But I found the most interesting – and least explored – aspect of the article occurred in the first two paragraphs.  A baker wanting to donate excess bread to a homeless woman’s shelter or even directly to homeless people in Los Angeles’ Skid Row discovered nobody wanted it.  Which to my mind says that hunger may not be the major issue for some of these people.

I’m all for repurposing food and helping to ensure it doesn’t go to waste.  And I believe there are hungry people who need it.   But what if that’s not the case?  At least not on the scale we imagine it to be?  In a patchwork of city, state, and national programs to assist in providing money for food, and in addition to countless non-profits and churches that also seek to help the hungry, is the nature of the problem changing?  Is hunger less of an issue for some people – like the homeless – than we imagine it to be?  Does this indicate a change in the homeless culture itself?

A local school district is facing financial challenges (of course).  One of the proposed solutions is to scale back the free breakfasts the schools offer to any student who wants one, to just those students who are verified as needing it.  I’m sure the breakfasts were made available to every student in order to eliminate the stigma of a breakfast only available to the verifiably destitute.  When I was growing up it was a stigma to not be fed at school, because the school lunches cost money and my family could only afford to send me with a packed  lunch.  Now the situation seems to be reversed?

I’m curious about why the shelter said no to the bread, and why the homeless themselves weren’t interested.  I’m sure the shelter can only use so much bread on a daily basis, but again, if people are dealing with hunger at the levels often touted in our media, it’s hard to imagine them passing up free food.

Unless they’ve discovered a better option.  In which case, we should be paying attention to that shift to make sure that unused food gets to those who actually need it.

Just Cute

December 5, 2019

It could easily be maintained that I have no heart, based on my typical posts that veer (successfully or unsuccessfully) more towards the cerebral than the emotional.

But just to prove I am somewhat human, here is an adorable example of how something can be done well without resorting to excessive expense, profanity, nudity, sexuality, or any of our  other popular marketing gimmicks.

Take a few seconds to watch this if you’re in the mood for something wholesome and sentimental.

Missionary Thanksgiving

November 28, 2019

We hosted Thanksgiving dinner, as we have practically every year for the last 15 years, since we moved away from our home  state and our families to embark on the process of graduate work and ordination and life as a pastor and family.  And while we miss family this time of year, we also appreciate the opportunity we’ve been afforded to establish our own traditions, the foremost being opening our house to whomever wants to come by and join in.

This year we had two and a half Russians, two Swiss students, a Brazilian girl, a Belgian guy, a retired lawyer from the eastern United States, the spouse of one of the Russians, and a South African surfer/photographer/missionary.  There were at least two others who were slated to come but didn’t.  It was a big group, when you add these to our family of five and our two dogs!

We’d never met half of these people.  The other half have gradually become part of our extended family over the past months and years.  Most people think we’re crazy for doing this sort of thing, and there are moments throughout where we know we are.  But, it’s who we are.  If God the Holy Spirit grants gifts to his people, they aren’t all going to look and act the same.  And what is well out of one person’s comfort level may fit someone else just right.

And that’s what it comes down to.  As a family of mostly introverts, it isn’t that we open our house and our lives for comfort or because it’s our first inclination.  But we do it in hopes that somewhere along the line the Holy Spirit will prompt something that leads towards a Gospel conversation.  We love these people, friends old and new.  We love them here and now and as they are, but hoping and praying that we can love them as brothers and sisters in eternity as well as for Thanksgiving dinner.  It isn’t bait and switch, it isn’t I’ll-be-nice-to-you-now-so-I-can-ambush-you-with-Jesus, but rather a continuum.  I love you here and now ultimately because of Jesus and his love for you eternally.  I prayed before the meal, and not one of those generic sort of un-offensive things that doesn’t address anyone or anything, but a good Trinitarian prayer with Jesus and everything.  Not the Gospel, but a statement that we are Christians and perhaps that is why we do what we do.  And we pray now for opportunities to follow up, to continue discussion, to deepen relationships to the point where talking about Jesus isn’t weird.

It takes time, but the Gospel is being shared.  Repeated conversations with some of these people where we address larger cultural issues and have the opportunity to share what our faith and the Bible has to say about these things.  Finding places of overlap and commonality that can lead back to the God who created all things and our responsibility in messing them up and his faithfulness in insisting on restoring them.

That’s what matters most, is giving thanks to the God who does everything for us and despite us.  Not just once a year but every moment.