Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

Making Way

April 14, 2021

….and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. – 1 Kings 19:16

Preach the Gospel. Die. Be forgotten. ~ Nicolaus Zinzendorf

This was part of the Old Testament reading this morning in chapel. Not the Zinzendorf bit, of course. That would be highly unusual in our culture of success and leadership, a culture that even the Church assumes in what it says and what it chooses not to say. Yet the Word of God continues to creep in when we aren’t vigilant and expose our foibles and send our idols tottering.

Elijah the last of the faithful prophets, on the run from a murderous queen after a victory that even by our social media influencer standards would be impressive, putting to death 450 false prophets of Baal after God shows his reality and presence in power and authority. Elijah despairing that he has been a failure. That he’s no better than the ones who came before him, who were also unable to turn the hearts of the people back to God, or curb the ambitions and apathy of the kings of God’s people. Hiding in a cave.

What would God say to this guy, this faithful man who has done much and suffered much and who, in his own words, has been very jealous for the Lord? What sort of half-time pep talk might we look for? A rousing, inspiring speech to reinstill Elijah with vigor and hope and purpose? To put him back on the path to personal fulfillment and professional success? How might God show Elijah his despair is out of place and what spiritual secrets to job satisfaction might the Lord of hosts reveal?

…you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.

It’s easy to pass over those words. Easy to focus on the first part of God’s response, which is for Elijah to anoint two new kings who are going to kick ass and probably not even bother to chew bubble gum. Promises of swords and judgment. Probably not overly inspiring to Elijah, though. Kings come and go. Elijah’s fathers were proof of that. And those final words probably occupied Elijah’s full attention. You need to anoint your successor. Your time is coming to an end.

I’ll admit I’ve never been one for reveling in youthful exuberance. Being a student both of history and an enrollee in the school of hard knocks, I’ve never been prone to Stuart Smalley-style encouragements (go ahead and look up Stuart Smalley on YouTube if you like, but I’m sure it would be considered quite inappropriate these days), and I’m a anachronistic hold-out against the modern acquiescence to ubiquitous therapy. Zinzendorf resonates with me and getting older has only confirmed his maxim.

And perhaps that maxim is useful to us as well in a culture hell-bent on exhorting and encouraging and affirming generations of people to goals they can’t possibly accomplish in carefully curated social media magnifying glass they can’t possibly compete with or sustain.

Odds are you aren’t going to change the world. Odds are you won’t reach the top of your profession. Odds are you won’t complete everything you set out to do. This is not a failure on your part. After all, who among us is really much better than our fathers before us? And what metric are we going to grab to determine that?

This isn’t a call to apathy or listlessness or despair. It’s a call to realism. A call to quit looking in the mirror, or more accurately to quit comparing the mirror to the fitness model or the wildly successful day-trader or the latest celebrity phenom. It’s a call to value and appreciate what you do accomplish today, what you do contribute, and more fundamentally, simply that you are. The real metric of self-esteem isn’t what we do at all, it’s simply that we’re here at all. We exist. We are created. And inextricably linked to this reality of created, unique existence is the reality of redemption not in what we accomplish but what our Creator accomplishes on our behalf through his Son, Jesus.

At that point we can deal with our finitude. We can deal with ordinariness, averageness. We can deal with moments of failure as well as moments of success. We can come to grips with the fact that someone is going to come after us and pick up where we left off and maybe finish some of those things we weren’t able to, and that in one way or another, we’ve done that for someone ahead of us.

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.

A COVID Year

March 17, 2021

One year ago I was driving out of Las Vegas. My buddy had just placed third in the world in his division after a multi-day battle. COVID panic was setting in and already the shelves in Las Vegas grocery stores were bare of many common toiletries, basic medical items, and of course toilet paper and paper towels. I bought the last multi-pack of tissue boxes they had. My wife was texting me from home telling me to keep my eyes open as the supplies were all gone there.

We loaded up in my SUV for the drive home. Not just my buddy and I who had driven out together but another teammate hitching a ride back, as well as our billiards league president and his wife, who didn’t want to risk another night in Vegas and maybe having their flight canceled the next day.

As we left the city limits at dusk there was a storm in the distance to the east over the mountains, with occasional flashes of lightning. A beautiful, complete double-rainbow amazed us all from the same direction. And the radio station dedicated to people on the highway towards and from Las Vegas had their classic rock lineup interrupted so the Governor of Nevada could announce Las Vegas was shutting down. Hotels and casinos would cease all operations in just a few short hours. Everything was to shut down by his order. COVID was upon us and we needed to bend the curve of new cases to ensure hospitals weren’t overwhelmed.

The drive home was pretty quiet. Inside the car we were all disappointed the world tournament was cancelled and none of us got to play in our team events. I suspect everyone was slightly in shock – Las Vegas could just shut down? Just like that? Outside the roads were quiet as well. We passed by deserted truck stops and hotels with empty parking lots.

A year later. My wife and I sit in a pub in St. Louis. Masks everywhere, even though regulations in the City have relaxed in the past week or so. Restaurants can seat people indoors if they maintain social distancing and limit the number of customers they allow in. Back home our county has dropped out of the most severe tier of COVID urgency. Things appear to be easing back towards normality but the news feed is full of warnings of a third wave of COVID likely as restrictions ease and a population exhausted by a year of isolation champs at the bit to get back out and be with each other again. Overseas Europe and Asia are reporting spikes in COVID numbers and renewed and more vigorous restrictions.

None of us thought we would be here a year ago. We hoped and prayed things would go back to normal in a few weeks. They haven’t. And if things keep on at the current rate, normality is a long way off. A new level of fear and paranoia grips people. The airports we flew in and out of barked at everyone to keep their masks on and stay six feet away from each other, but we were seated shoulder to shoulder on the airplanes (masked, of course). Now that the election is history all the news stations seem able to talk about is COVID. News reports are beginning to admit what was obvious all along but nobody wanted to say – the vaccines are an uncertain bulwark against the virus, and even if they function as well as intended, people are going to need to get used to annual booster shots, similar to flu shots. Frankly we’ll be lucky if we only need one booster a year. I’m guessing we’ll be told to get at least two.

The world has changed. Not for the better. You don’t hear much of the ridiculous blather that was pushed early on in COVID, about how we’re all in this together and we’re working together for the good of the people. We weren’t. We aren’t. We’re tired and exhausted. Some people are terrified still and others are throwing all caution to the wind. The toll this all has and continues to take will only unfold fully over the next decade of more, ensuring multiple generations of social scientists of all stripes have plenty to dissect and analyze and hypothesize about. And the list of core memory moments in my lifetime increases from Reagan being shot and the Challenger blowing up and 9/11 to include COVID and a year-plus of trying to be a source of assurance in the midst of chaos, of calling people back to the Word of God that transcends all things, and has itself sustained many, many generations through far worse disasters and atrocities than this.

We are still here. And those with the Word know where we’re headed. May we all have the strength and grace and peace of God to know He’ll bring us there in his timing and his way.

Condemning Without Examination

February 11, 2021

This article is a fascinating example of the importance of analyzing the intent of a communication. What is it the writer or speaker or producer wants to occur in my thoughts or actions after ingesting their work?

The tone of the article throughout condemns the various bans on facemasks throughout Sweden during the COVID pandemic thus far, repeatedly juxtaposing Swedish stances on the issue with the larger body of established evidence. We are to shake our heads at those poor Swedes whose government agencies have failed them during this crisis by communicating inaccurately and ineffectively. We will, rather the author intends it or not (which means they probably do) also likely lament the supposed fate of the Swedes. After all, if their government directly contradicted prevailing medical opinions, was silly enough to even communicate their concerns about the safety of facemasks to the international medical community, and then did a terrible job at communicating the need for facemasks and under what conditions, the average reader would likely conclude that things in Sweden are far worse than places that followed more conventional wisdom and communicated clearly and strongly to require facemasks as protection against COVID.

But while this is likely the inference of the average reader, the article nowhere bothers to confirm this reaction (let alone dissuade it). The author clearly feels Sweden was out of place in the course of action it has taken in downplaying the efficacy and safety of requiring citizens to wear masks. The author certainly substantiates with external links that such a course of action stands in marked contrast to what most of the rest of the world recommends. But the real proof in whether a travesty has taken place or not is whether this decidedly different approach resulted in a pandemic situation worse than those countries pushing mask wearing. In other words, going a different direction can be good, bad, or indifferent based on the results. Or it can be simply dismissed as bad in itself – taking a path contrary to the established norms of the larger group is always bad, regardless of whether what the larger group recommends is actually helpful or not. That’s ultimately what this article leaves you with.

But that’s not necessarily true. It can be. But as a rule of thumb, a guideline to live life by, it can be very dangerous and misleading, and is actually a logical fallacy – an appeal to the majority (ad populum, to use the Latin). Just because more people think something is true – or because a particular group of experts think something is true – does not necessarily mean it’s true. It’s certainly something to take into consideration! But the demonstration of whether they’re right or not must lie somewhere else or in something more than opinion.

So let’s do some research. Sweden has a population of roughly 10,400,000 people. The World Health Organization says there have been just over 604,000 reported cases of COVID, and just under 12,4000 deaths. That pans out to an infection rate of the overall population of about 6%, and a mortality rate of COVID infection of 2%. For comparison, the US has a population of 330,000,000. The WHO reports US COVID numbers as just over 27,000,000 infections and 468,000 deaths. That comes out to an infection rate of 8% and a mortality rate of 1.7%. Arguing for any number of mitigating factors like population density and we could generously say that the infection rates are roughly similar and perhaps the mortality rates are a smidge higher in Sweden than in the US.

What about a European comparison? Germany has a population of approximately 83,000,000 people, of whom 2,320,000 have had COVID leading to 64,200 deaths. That comes out to an infection rate of not quite 3% and a mortality rate of not quite 3%. Germany’s infection percent is half of Sweden’s but it’s mortality rate is 50% higher. Interesting trade-off.

The United Kingdom has implemented increasingly extremely restrictions and punishments to discourage gatherings and travel and stem the high rates of infection. The UK has a population of 68,000,000, of whom 4,000,000 have contracted COVID and 115,500 have died. That yields an infection rate of almost 6% and a mortality rate of just under 3%.

So it would seem that while Sweden’s advice on health masks has been at times contrary to prevailing ideas on the efficacy of face masks, and at other times confusing to the point of being almost useless, the resulting levels of infections and deaths have not been noticeably higher than those countries that have imposed very harsh restrictions and mandated facemasks in all public spaces (at the very least!).

Perhaps COVID isn’t the best way to examine issues of what and how governments communicate to their people. Or if you’re going to do that, you should focus more exclusively on that rather than implied judgment about whether what was communicated (however poorly) was the right thing to try and communicate or not. I think you could write an article showcasing poor communication skills without also implying pretty heavily that not only was the communication poor, the message was wrong.

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.

Book Review: Steps of Transformation

December 21, 2020

Steps of Transformation: An Orthodox Priest Explores the Twelve Steps by Archimandrite Meletios Webber

A friend of mine in the midst of recovery shared this book with me as she is converted to Orthodox from more traditional evangelical Christianity.

This is an excellent resource for anyone trying to understand addiction and the people embedded in addictive behaviors. It essentially is a series of reflections – some theological and others more clinical in nature – on addiction, addicts, and finally the Twelve Steps. Arguably the book’s strongest feature is the introductory sections on addition and people in addiction. The author does a good job of plainly explaining many of the thought processes involved in addiction that are so puzzling and infuriating and heartbreaking to those who love and care for them. Recognizing that traditional tools for dealing with other people (communication, rationality, honesty, etc.) are practically ineffective with people active in their addiction can be hugely comforting, and hopefully will direct friends and family to support groups such as Al-Anon designed for those who aren’t addicts themselves but have addicts in their lives. The author spends almost no time at all on these organizations but those with addicts in their lives would likely benefit immensely from a support network of others in similar situations.

Bible verses are quoted throughout and there are attempts to find examples of each of the Twelve Steps in Scripture, often in the parables of Jesus. References were also made to Orthodox saints and writers which, as a non-Orthodox Christian were curious to me and spurred me to outside research for more information.

Some of his language early on points to a perceived or real hostility among Orthodox Christians of the Twelve Steps as an alternative to Orthodox Christianity. Webber works hard to demonstrate why the Twelve Steps insist upon being so vague and non-specific about higher powers and the God of our understanding, which was helpful for me as I have been critical of the Steps for this in the past. Keeping perspective that the Twelve Steps are first and foremost focused on helping someone leave behind drinking or other addictive behaviors is critical. But at the same time Webber argues that the Steps offer a deep spirituality, however it is a depth I often see lacking (at least externally) in many of the recovery people I work with regularly. The steps are easy to pay lip service to, since many of the changes are -as Webber admits – internal and deeply personal and subjective. They’re hard to measure in any quantitative or qualitative fashion beyond whether a person is remaining sober or not.

This is a great resource for anyone with an addict in their lives, but it will make most sense to those who also are Christian. While aimed at Orthodox readers it is not done so in a way that is exclusive or which prohibits other Christians from benefitting.

As is generally the case in practical theology, there are aspects I think he should have mentioned as differences rather than focusing so much on trying to show the Steps as consistent with Orthodoxy, or at least not contradictory. For instance, his discussion in Chapter 12 of Steps 8 and 9 (making a list of all people we have harmed and being willing to make amends, and then actually making amends where possible) completely ignores the limitations of these steps compared to the deeper healing offered in Confession and Absolution. Many addicts have criminal backgrounds in the not-so-distant past. Sponsors are not protected or exempt from being subpoenaed and forced to disclose things a person in recovery may have admitted to them. A list of persons harmed and needing amends made to could be used against an addict when obtained from their sponsor, and for this reason some addicts are very honest that they can’t put everything down.

The rite of Confession and Absolution is however (at least for the time being) still recognized by the State as a sacred place, the contents of which cannot be disclosed and which a recognized priest or minister cannot be forced to disclose to others. Although there are active efforts in various places to begin undoing the private nature of Confession, at least for now Confession can offer a much deeper healing in that it can allow the recovering addict to be fully, brutally honest. And of course, making amends is not the same as seeking the forgiveness of God. Only in Confession and Absolution can the promises of forgiveness in faith in Jesus Christ be articulated by another human being and, perhaps, finally truly heard and accepted in a way not possible with generic corporate confession or through the Twelve Steps.

Again, I strongly recommend this book to those with addicts in their lives, or those who care for those with addicts in their lives. Certainly it should be required reading in seminaries where future ministers are trained in practical theology. Webber speculates that perhaps addiction has become a far more common occurrence in our time and place as opposed to in Jesus’ day. Perhaps that is true, both in terms of our psychological climate as well as the increasing availability and cultural acceptance of more and more addictive substances, as well as the increased anonymity possible in a culture where the family is fractured. If these things are true, it will become increasingly important that pastors and religious leaders be more familiar with the nature of addiction and the addicted mindset.

If the Lord Wills

December 14, 2020

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” – yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16

I was talking with a friend the other day who cited something I’ve heard floating around a bit the latter part of this year. I’m not going to go see my parents this year for the holidays so that I can see them next year for the holidays. The idea being that because of the risk of COVID and the higher danger to older people more likely to have co-morbidities or weaker immune systems, the responsible thing to do is stay away from them (and have them stay away from everyone else) and then next year we’ll all be healthy and COVID will be gone and we’ll celebrate together then.

I understand the rationale. I don’t fault people for saying it. I know they mean well. And as I’ve maintained since all this started back in March each person has to figure out how to navigate the COVID landscape for themselves within the larger guidelines suggested or mandated to us by various government or health officials.

That being said, I always want to remind Christians to weigh this in the balance with James’ words above. There are no guarantees as to what the future holds, other than that our Lord is returning at some point! We make our decisions with the best available information and as we feel led or compelled to by the information at hand, but that doesn’t mean it will play out the way we hope it will. That’s not in our control. This means two things.

First, it doesn’t mean we switch our brains off and pay no attention to planning or available information or reasonable levels of prudence and wisdom. To say we are not in control is not to say we have no control. It’s just that our control is limited – a fact we dislike and often seek actively to avoid completely in our considerations. Christians who refuse to use the minds God gave them and the knowledge available around us are not being faithful, and those who are not Christian and wish to maliciously characterize a life of faith in Christ as one devoid of intelligence or thougthfulness are being disingenuous, to say the least.

Secondly, it means that Christians should temper our plans for the future with the understanding things are not fully in our control. And this is the important aspect to keep in mind with the adage above about keeping distant now to ensure opportunities to be together when the pandemic has passed. Although a great deal of hope is being foisted onto the shoulders of various vaccines available in various degrees, we don’t know how that will play out.

We can certainly hope that vaccines roll out as scheduled (or faster) function as intended and with similar rates of protection to what has been seen in human trials. But even if this is the case, the likelihood of COVID fears dissipating fairly soon is unlikely. Even if rates drop, the vaccines don’t seem to offer long-term protection from COVID, meaning that additional doses will be necessary to ensure the virus loses access to a large enough spectrum of the population long enough to begin dying out of circulation. That’s likely to take at least another year. It could take longer – we just don’t know. After all, it was just two months ago the media was laughing at our president for claiming vaccines would be available before the end of the year. Now that the election is over, what a shock to find out he had been right. Hmmmm.

Anyways.

That’s all COVID stuff. Ministering to older adults, many of whom have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren they miss dearly and look forward to seeing any chance they get, I know how hard the social isolation has been on them. I also know a fair number of these older adults are taking directions from their kids, and being more careful than they themselves might be left to their own devices. And I also know that things can change quickly as people get into their 70’s and 80’s – more quickly than they or anyone else expect, and sometimes with less advanced warning.

All of which is to say that not seeing your family is no guarantee you’ll get to see them next year, even if none of you contract COVID or have any complications from it. As James reminds us, life is fleeting. All too brief as well as unpredictable. And this at least needs to be discussed as plans (or no plans) are being made for Christmas time.

Again, it isn’t as simple as saying go see your aging parents or grandparents because you may not get another chance to. But it is worth reminding people that life is fleeting, like a mist. Talk about it together. Pray about it together. Make decisions together. Grant a great deal of grace and forgiveness in the midst of all the stress and craziness of this past year. And also take seriously the sovereignty of God in all things, even pandemics. Life is a beautiful gift we don’t have absolute control over but receive day by day as it is given to us without any assurances of the next minute let alone the next year.

You may reach the same conclusions you were inclined to before, but you’ll all be better for the discussion and the prayer and the deliberate inclusion of the faith you proclaim in the process.

Control

December 2, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other COVID Effects

December 1, 2020

Just a reminder – COVID and related restrictions have other costs associated with them than just who gets sick and who doesn’t.

A fascinating article here about Japan, where suicide deaths in October alone exceeded COVID deaths for all of 2020. The mental health effects of COVID and associated isolation and lockdowns is being seen in real time in some countries.

Other effects of COVID and related restrictions include deepening levels of social awkwardness as people deal with their own fears of others and reciprocal fears. Traditional understandings of how to engage socially – shaking hands, smiling – are all being deconstructed when our faces are hidden behind masks and human touch as become a social faux pas.

Long term impacts on school-aged children during COVID will be gradually revealing themselves for another decade or more. At risk students has a whole new dimension to it in the age of COVID. I developed and taught online curriculum for over a decade when it was a brand new field of technology and Internet possibility. I witnessed firsthand that online education is not for everyone, and that means both teachers and students. For those with learning styles requiring more or different than what is possible through synchronous or asynchronous online learning platforms, the risk of falling through the cracks is even more prevalent now.

And of course the working world is changing. For the first time the reality of a large percentage of employees working remotely permanently seems to make sense. But of course, not all jobs have that option. Many jobs – particularly ones with lower salaries – require people to show up in order to bag groceries and cook food and harvest crops and any number of very tangible, real-time duties. How does our society deal with this shifting away from the idea that everyone goes to work? Is working from home a benefit to the employee, and as such should the employee be taxed for that benefit in order to provide additional funds to those who have no such option? Or should employers be taxed for this option, since it will inevitably enable them to save money through smaller office space needs and other very tangible, bottom line benefits?

A vaccine is not going to make any of these issues disappear. Damage has already been done, and changes in approaches to work and personal life will continue even if a vaccine is ready or herd immunity is reached or the virus simply quits infecting at the rates it has been. COVID is going to be with us a lot longer than the actual Coronavirus might.

Irony

November 30, 2020

Our state is once again under lockdown. Nearly almost as strict as when we all began this back in March. Not quite as strict though. You can still go shopping pretty much anywhere you want, but churches aren’t allowed to gather indoors for worship even if we’re all maintaining the exact same precautions as retail businesses – or more. Churches are too dangerous, apparently. (As a follow-up edit, I found an article rating various activities from least dangerous to most dangerous on a color-coded graduated scale. The last [and therefore presumably most dangerous] activity listed in the category of highest risk was going to a “large or crowded” religious service. No definitions of those terms – is a worship service at 20% capacity more crowded than Costco at 20% capacity? Also no justification at all for assigning worship to this highest risk category I certainly haven’t seen many reports of churches as epicenters of COVID transmission in the last nine months, and the one that was cited extensively at the start of COVID turned out to not really be a worship service at all but a choir practice for a group not associated with the church itself.)

So it was not without a bitter sense of irony that I read an article in our local “Independent” weekly news magazine, where one of our county health officials quoted Galatians 6:9, And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. The reporter didn’t bother to look up the exact location of the quote but was astute enough to at least mention it came from the Bible.

Of course, the context is all wrong. It is not a verse about protecting ourselves from physical harm but rather a verse about protecting ourselves from spiritual harm by continuing to engage in those things which benefit us spiritually while avoiding those that are detrimental. A good argument could be made this verse is dealing specifically with care for those who are preaching and teaching the Word of God (v.6). At the very least it has to do with caring for one another and especially those who are brothers and sisters in Christ (v.10).

What that looks like in the age of COVID is tricky to define. A great deal of grace and respect must be given, and those amounts and forms vary almost by individual. What is loving for one person is insulting to another, and visa versa. But it’s safe to say that allowing people to get their nails done and their hair done while prohibiting the people of God from gathering under equal or even safer conditions as part of their life of faith probably doesn’t intent of Galatians 6:9.

We will one day reap what is sown. The habits we fall into or are forced into have long-range repercussions on our lives of faith which in turn affect our eternal life. All this should be kept in mind as our elected or appointed officials seek to do good. Hopefully the recent Supreme Court decision in regards to banning worship in New York will have wider ranging impacts even here on the opposite coast. Our leaders will one day have to answer to more than the CDC or the WHO or the press for their decisions.