I rejoiced when they said unto me, “Let us go up to the house of the LORD!”
- Psalm 122:1
So are you ready to go back to Church? This may not be the right question to be asking. It might be better to ask, “Is the Church ready for people to come back?” The CDC recently released interim guidance for houses of worship planning to reopen. This can be found at the CDC website - CDC.gov and in the search box type in “Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith”. This guidance was published May 28 and as it is interim guidance, we know it will likely change before final guidelines are issued. In the meantime, there are several questions that need to be asked and answered to see if we are “ready” to start in person worship services again. Some of these have already been addressed by the ministry and executive boards, others will be taken up at our next meeting a few weeks before we reopen.
The first thing to note about guidance - whether from CDC, Governor Murphy, District or Synod - is that every congregation is unique and not all guidelines will apply to all congregations equally. The first thing that needs to be established is how high on the risk scale does Redeemer fall. Is our congregation mostly older members (55+) and/or comprised of people with underlying risk factors. The average age of those in the pews prior to Covid-19 was 61.3 years old. MOST of our members are in the “high risk” category, so we would want to be more cautious than a congregation of fit and healthy 30-40 year olds. With a vaccine 6-18 months away, and no effective treatment for Covid-19 yet (though some drugs are showing some promise), gathering for worship to lead to more harm than good.
Also within our demographics, do we have enough low-risk people to handle what would need to be done to safely reopen? Someone will need to clean and sterilize the facility after each worship service - are they sufficiently low risk as to not get infected / hospitalized in carrying out this function. Do we have enough gloves and / or other PPE for those tasked with preparing and/ or cleaning the facility? Someone will need to handle the offering envelopes and communion-ware. Greeters, ushers, and choirs will likely not be part of worship in the foreseeable future - but more on worship changes next week.
We also need to consider our building / physical plant. Do we have enough space to rope off every other row of pews and establish 6ft of distance between family groups within pews? Given we normally worship 50 in a sanctuary with seating for 150, this shouldn’t be a problem for us. One of the guidelines calls for “unidirectional flow of foot traffic”. In other words, are our entrances and exits set up such that we can have one-way movement of people entering and exiting the building? Redeemer’s sanctuary is not really built for that, but by staggering entrance and exit times, we can make sure people can safely enter and exit the sanctuary - it just may take a bit longer to get everyone in and out. Also recommended is signage showing flow of traffic and postings about Covid-19 and its symptoms and where to go for testing. That can be easily achieved.
The next set of questions has to do with worship particulars and we’ll address this more in next week’s blog. Can we worship without hymnals? (paper is very difficult to disinfect) Can we worship without bulletins? Should we or should we not sing? Singing apparently produces more “respiratory droplets” which is the chief way Covid-19 spreads. Is it worship without hymnody? Can we do a contact-less offering (no passing of a plate)? What about Communion - can you take Communion in a mask? How do we take attendance in case contact-tracing becomes necessary?
The next series of questions has to do with providing for proper hygiene and sanitation. Should the bathrooms be open during worship? The best suggestion to date is “do your business before you come” and keep the bathrooms closed. They would need to be re-sanitized after each user which would be difficult as worship is happening. What about frequently touched surfaces like door handles? Maybe we should just leave the doors open and take our chances of a squirrel running in. BTW I now have Ray Stevens’ “The Great Mississippi Squirrel Revival” running through my head - you should YouTube it if you want a good laugh. Do we have enough hand sanitizer for the expected number of worshipers? Where do we put it? This may lead to a new church tradition not entirely unlike having a trough of holy water to use upon entrance to the sanctuary. Should the congregation purchase masks for any who may show up without one? Will we usher out anyone who refuse to keep their mask on? What else might the church have to do to create a “safe space” and who will be tasked with making it so?
So, are you ready to come back to church? If you’re like me, you have been itching for the day when our exile from the Lord’s house is at an end and God’s family can gather around His table of grace again. Once Gov. Murphy lifts the restriction on gatherings of up to 50 in enclosed areas I will very likely respond the way the Psalmist did as cited above. But is the church ready for you to come back? Well, we’re working on it. We hope to have all these (and many other) questions resolved before Gov. Murphy lifts executive order 107 - or the NJ Supreme Court rules it unconstitutional. It is our hope to go above and beyond the minimal guidance from the CDC and other authorities so we can worship and enjoy at least seeing each other (while staying 6 ft, apart) once more. Keep checking out this blog and other announcements on our website and make sure your Redeemer emails aren’t going to your spam folder as we’ll try to keep you up to date as conditions change.
As one of our old hymns says, “God be with you til we meet again”. Remember we have Facebook live at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and we alternate Zoom services and regular podcasts (podcasts are also available Zoom weeks). I look forward to being with you again soon (hopefully).
- Pastor Brian
He said to me, “It is finished. I AM the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” - Revelation 21:6
How does this end? It’s a good question to ask before undertaking a task, what is the “end game”? How are we to know when something is finished? As we continue our look at the ending of this current pandemic (and how plagues have ended in the past), it might be helpful to review last week’s blog. We looked at the medical ending - when there are no more cases or very few and the pathogen has finished sickening and killing the bulk of the population. We looked at the political ending, when the governing authorities say it is “safe” (relatively speaking) to go to the beach, get a haircut, go to church, and otherwise reopen stores and resume life in a new normal. But there is a third way, and this way is by far the most common. This is the popular ending - when the populace decides to come out of hiding.
Throughout history, most plagues struck quickly and were resolved quickly - usually within a month. In that time either you got sick or you didn’t. Those in your village either recovered or died. But the plague (of whatever pathogen caused it) would not linger more than a month or so before moving to the next village. At some point, the residents of that village would do what we call a risk / benefits analysis and decide that the risk of contracting the plague was less than the benefit of resuming work or other activities. For example; say you were living in England in 1349 and the bubonic plague came to your little village. You made your ring of roses, and filled your pockets with pansies (posies), you have no “achoo’s” or other symptoms of the plague, and your crops are awaiting harvest in the fields. If you leave the safety of your home, you might catch the plague, but if you stay quarantined from the world your crops will rot in the fields and you’ll have nothing to feed yourself with. There is a small window for making hay, bringing in the sheaves, etc. So do you go out and harvest (go back to work) or do you stay home and maybe starve? Most would probably go back to their vocation as the risks of the plague are less than the risks of starvation or economic ruin by resuming one’s vocation.
The same is happening in our world with all the “reopen ____” protests. Even though the medical advice says to stay home and the government has not authorized reopening, many are doing it anyway. In their minds, the risks of staying at home and not working are greater than the risk that they would catch Covid-19 or the risk that if they did get the virus that it would seriously harm them (less than 30% need medical intervention). We see this with worship as well. This weekend (5/31) as the Church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, some 1,300 congregations in California have signed a petition stating that they will be open for services (following safety protocols as directed) - whether the governor lifts the stay-at-home orders or not. These 1,300 congregations have come to the conclusion that the harm caused by continued lack of worship is greater than either the legal harm from the state (fines, etc.) or harm to the health of their members and communities (why safety practices are in effect). As of yesterday (5/25) the governor yielded to the will of the people and lifted the ban on church gatherings - so long as social distancing and other safety protocols were met.
This is the traditional way a pandemic comes to an end. SARS-CoV2(a,b,&d) might be with us for years to come; just like influenza virus and pneumococcal bacteria and a host of other microscopic pathogens. Eventually we learn to mitigate the risks these microbes impose and go about our lives again - with some changes as we’ve already seen. Eventually the “non-essential businesses” will become essential, as they would already have closed for good if they served no needs; I’m thinking haircuts at the moment. These businesses will reopen with or without Governor Murphy’s say so. They will resume providing the goods and services they do with or without the CDC declaring an “end” to this pandemic. We see this in the “phased re openings” and in news stories about businesses defying lock down orders and serving their customers. We saw this at the outset of stay at home orders where liquor stores and abortion clinics were deemed “essential” even if churches and delis were not. Throughout history it has been the will of the people crying out “Enough!” that makes governments change their tune and the populace determining just how much risk they are willing to take.
As President Trump last week declared that houses of worship are essential for a healthy society and the CDC itself has estimated some 75,000 “deaths of despair” (suicide, overdoses, alcohol poisonings) caused by a 65+ day lock down, it seems that worship as a congregation will resume shortly. I have not yet heard whether Gov. Murphy shares the President’s opinion that churches are essential and it is up to the one who issued Executive Order 107 to rescind said order. Some states have placed limits on executive orders (30 or 60 days then they automatically expire). So while we have not heard a date when worship is allowable (i.e. no fines / jail time for worshiping as E.O. 107 dictates), there is some talk of the next phase of relaxation of restrictions coming June 5th. We can only wait and see when we will be able to worship without penalty once more and take such steps as to ensure the health and well being of both our worshipers and our community is preserved. We will look at how we can worship AND stay safe in next week’s blog.
As far as pandemics go, this is not the end. It’s not even the beginning of the end. It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. We now need to figure out how we are to live with this new corona virus strain and lessen the risks of infection. It will be a new normal in our schools, churches, businesses, places of recreation, and all other aspects of life. We will not be going back to the way things were in February.
But even with all these changes, we keep in mind Him who is both the Beginning and the Ending of all things. The Alpha and Omega, our Lord, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. We place our hope and our trust in His almighty hand, knowing that He loves us and will never forsake us no matter what calamity might befall. To Him be glory and praise forever and ever. Amen.
How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?…But I trust in Your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for He has been good to me. - Psalm 13:1,5-6
What began on March 16 as a 14 day voluntary suspension of activity has now morphed into a complex and confusing series of CDC guidance, federal recommendations, state executive orders with sporadic enforcement, and a “reopen” protest movement. Now on day 63 (as of this writing), those first 14 days when we had hoped to “flatten the curve” by “stay home, stay safe” seem a distant memory. The number of new positive test results and hospitalizations and deaths has been at a plateau since the end of April. Beaches and boardwalks are able to reopen - with certain restrictions, yet graduations, funerals, weddings, and other events where more than 10 people gather are still outlawed. And so we wonder, how long until we can worship again? When will this pandemic and the mitigation factors come to an end?
That all depends on how you determine the “end”. Historically, plagues (pandemics) have ended one of two ways - either the pathogen “burns itself out” or the people decide that the risk of infection is not as great as the consequences of continued isolation and economic impacts. In 21st Century America we have a third option which has not been used before in Western history - a political end. We’ll look at each of these and see if they give any guidance to “how long?” questions.
Pestilence, pandemics, plagues, etc. Have been with humankind for our entire recorded history. Those who hold to the theory of evolution state that bacteria and viruses are among the oldest life forms on earth - predating humans by billions of years. While we didn’t know about these pathogenic life forms until the invention of the microscope in 1625 and didn’t know how to treat them until Louis Pasteur’s work in the mid 1800’s. Penicillin, the first of all antibiotics was not available to the public until March of 1945. In only 75 years we have created hundreds if not thousands of antibiotics to deal with plagues. Yet viruses, being a genetic strand surrounded by a protein coat, are constantly mutating. That’s why we need a flu shot every year because there’s always a new version of a virus looking for a host. The same is true of SARS-CoV2. We now have SARS-CoV2a (Wuhan), SARS-CoV2b (Seattle), and SARS-CoV2d (New York) - I don’t know what happened to variant c. And this is in just the 5-6 months this virus has existed.
The way plagues have worked in the past is that a pathogen would enter an area by some means (vector) - insect borne, humans from abroad, shifting climate patterns, etc - and then infect a local area. Those people may travel to a neighboring village or even internationally (Crusades, exploration) and bring the pathogen to a new place.
Infection would spread quickly through the population and those infected would have 2 responses. They would all get sick, but some would recover and develop immunity and others would die of the microbe. Either way the pathogen would no longer have anyone new to infect and so the plague would end for the survivors of that generation. This is the “herd immunity” model that we hear about on the news. In an age with vaccines and antibiotics this historical way of plague formation may not repeat itself.
So looking at the medical method of determining an end, it’s really hard. Only 2 pathogens have ever been declared “ended” by the medical community - smallpox and polio. Smallpox still exists in bioweapons labs, and a variant of polio exists that still affects deer and goats but is not transmissible to humans. For a pandemic to be “over” from this perspective, there must be ZERO new cases in a year worldwide. The bubonic plague (aka Black Death) that ravaged Europe in 1348-1350 and caused about 80% mortality in those who were infected (40-50% of the entire population of Europe) is still with us. There were cases of yersinia pestis in Arizona and New Mexico just this past December. It is now easily treated with antibiotics, but the disease causing bacterium is still alive and well on fleas on rats just as it’s ever been. I don’t think the medical / infectious disease community will be saying Covid-19 is “done” anytime soon.
This poses a problem for the modern way of determining when a pandemic is over. The political model is a relatively new way of dealing with the spread of disease. Never before has the government issued executive orders curtailing the Constitutional freedoms of Americans due to a medical crisis. The last time the US had a pandemic was the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. The government asked churches to close and public gatherings to be suspended. As we still trusted the government back then, most businesses, bars, and churches willingly shut down for a few weeks or months. We should also note that back in 1918 we were just getting out of WWI and over 90% of the population still lived on farms and were “socially distanced”. Now with executive orders determining which businesses are “essential” and which are not, and with the power to compel compliance through prison and / or fines, we find ourselves in uncharted waters. Wisconsin, like many other states, limited the power of the executive branch to 30 days. A governor can take up emergency powers and do as he (or she) pleased, but only for 30 days or the end of the incident prompting the emergency. For anything more than that, the state’s legislature (the branch responsible for making laws) would have to weigh in and extend them. New Jersey has no such prohibition. Historically this has always been bad. There is usually some “emergency” that drives the leader to take on emergency powers, always with the assurance that those powers will be laid down after the emergency is over. The problem with this is that the emergency never ends. Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, Machievelli, and many other dictators throughout history have followed this pattern. Even Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars uses this model.
Given the criteria for the medical community declaring an end to the emergency situation, it is unlikely that a government where “Data determines dates” is going to call an end to the pandemic anytime soon. Another issue with this way of ending a pandemic response is the determination of data. As we have more testing done, there will be more confirmed positive cases. We still have an average of 62% of those testing positive having NO symptoms, and another 26% listing the symptoms as mild or moderate. Of the remaining 12% requiring hospitalization, the mortality rate is staggering (over 75%). The listing of “deaths due to Covid-19” is also problematic. If a 76 year old, obese, male with history of heart disease and diabetes (type 2 progressing to type 1) passes away after testing positive for Covid-19, what is listed as “cause of death”? The way reporting is done now, that heart attack would be listed as a Covid-19 death - even if the Corona virus was just a contributing factor. So waiting on the government to say the pandemic is past may be a long wait.
The last way a pandemic ends is when the populace says “enough is enough”. This happens when the common man decides that the risk of catching or suffering from the pathogen is less than the risk of harm that would come from continued quarantine. The farmer has to bring his crops to market, or they will rot in the field and lead to famine - which is worse? The baker needs to fire up his ovens and bake bread for the village or people will starve - what is the greater danger? Many of the protests we see on the news and businesses reopening in defiance of executive orders fall into this category. We’ll look at this in more detail and how it applies to churches resuming their “business” of Word and Sacrament next week.
Behold I am doing a new thing. Even now it springs up, do you not perceive it?
- Isaiah 43:19a
As we move into week 8 of the “stay at home” era of our lives, we’ve probably started to get used to a new normal. What were new routines, now become standard. The new ways of communicating, shopping, working, and learning have normalized. It is said that it takes 21 days (give or take 2-3 days) to break from one routine or habit and adopt another one. After this time the new one becomes the normal and we have certainly exceeded the 21 days for that to happen. This is true even of the church and the way we do things.
Eventually this lockdown will end and we will be able to gather for worship again. Just when that might be is still unclear - but that’s next week’s blog. But we shouldn’t think that church activities will simply go back to what they were prior to March 16. It’s not like we can flip a switch and go back to before Covid-19 became a household word.
When we get together again, we will likely still need to remain 6 feet apart. So do we rope off every other pew, use painter’s tape to mark out 6 ft. Spaces along each pew? The congregationalist / New England colonial concept of each family having a “box” in the sanctuary might just become the new normal. Redeemer’s sanctuary certainly has the seating capacity for us to remain “socially distanced” even with a larger than normal crowd. Coffee hours and chatting pre and post service in the narthex will probably not happen. Shaking hands and / or hugs will likely still be put on hold (6 ft, distance). Such measures will likely be needed until a vaccine is developed, tested, and widely administered or until “herd immunity” develops (the Swedish model).
Face masks of some sort will also become as common in America as they are in China. Even without an outbreak, most Chinese in the larger cities wear face masks daily. We will most likely need to do this too. How do you sing in a mask? I read an article from The Telegraph, a British newspaper, that said the Church of England is suspending all hymn singing for the foreseeable future. I guess singing allows “respiratory droplets” to travel further than speaking and masks may also impede congregational hymnody - though there is the one show called “The Masked Singer” which shows singing in a mask can be done. Music and singing our praises to God is a big part of what makes worship special for us. How we’ll do that in a post-pandemic world I have yet to figure out.
As for Holy Communion, I would guess the common cup is just out. How are we to comm-une (become one) while remaining socially distanced and making sure that the physical elements haven’t been touched by human hands? In the aforementioned article the Church of England is suspending Holy Communion until such time as it is safe to practice it again. Since they have a Calvinist concept of Communion as just a memorial meal (like an object lesson) without forgiveness, life, and salvation coming through the Sacrament, that might work for them. As we believe that the body and blood of Christ is truly (physically) present in, with, and under the bread and wine and this body and blood is “given and shed for you for the remission of your sins”, such a method wouldn’t work for us. Nor will the Roman Catholic method of imputed grace whereby simply seeing the priest commune can impart grace and forgiveness to those watching him do it. The Sacrament is the chief reason Christians come together for worship and it’s the central component of worship, so just how we will do this safely when we “reopen” is a tough nut to crack. Can the ushers keep folks 6 ft apart? Can we use individual cups and wafers as we do for shut-ins? We’ll see.
Over the last two months we’ve developed and are getting accustomed to many digital means of feeding on God’s Word. Zoom live stream services, podcasts, web logs (blogs), Facebook live, emails, etc. Have all been used to help fill the void left by the prohibition against meetings of more than 10 people. One person jokingly quipped, “There’s more than 50 people at Home Depot, so this week’s service will be held in plumbing.” At least we’d have plenty of pipes for an organ. But these digital methods can at least give us God’s Word, so they are well worth continuance.
But then the problem arises as to if these methods will take the place of in person worship services. If I can get up late, turn on my computer, grab an everything bagel and cup of coffee, then sit in my easy chair or sofa in my pajamas and worship - why would I ever want to go back to the old way? OK, I can’t get Communion through my smartphone, so maybe once per month I’ll show up for services. One parishioner commented that it was nice, on Easter Sunday, to simply put the laptop on the kitchen counter and be able to get Sunday dinner fixed as they worshiped. Is this going to become the new normal? For many congregations, especially those taking part in the Kairos network, live streaming a service from a remote location is already the new normal. Why get dressed up and drive and pay for a building when I can just stream a service or YouTube it at my convenience?
Even if we make all these changes so we can reopen, will people come back? As we are seeing in other states where restrictions are easing just because people can eat out or get haircuts or ___, that doesn’t mean they will. The memory and fear of this virus will be with us for a long time; for some it will be the defining event of their generation to date. Back around Easter time, a month or so ago, there was an article by Reuters news service conveying how the Christian Church was going to celebrate Holy Week and Easter without being able to gather for worship and other activities. One of the people interviewed was the Bishop of the Synod of New York (ELCA) who said that of the 135 congregations under his supervision, it was likely that 40 of them would not reopen even after the lockdown is lifted. The article also highlighted how many congregations were slow to adopt online giving and that without worship there was no way to pay the bills. The article, upon research done by Pew Research, estimates that 5% of Roman Catholic churches will cease to exist and 10% of mainline protestant churches will close - and that was if the restriction on worship was lifted in mid-April! Redeemer is certainly within that 10% of churches which may not reopen. If the church resumes its normal operations (worship, Bible Study, VBS, etc.) but people don’t gather and / or giving does not resume, then that’s it for us and for many other congregations. Of course, this is not a given, but it is a real and present possibility. The Church is people, and if people stay home, then there is no Church - it really is that simple.
Will online services and online giving and doing the work of the Church digitally become the new normal once we emerge from this pandemic? We will continue to get older and smaller and less effective as a community of faith? What is the new normal going to look like? We don’t know what the future holds - but God does. He will not forsake or abandon those He has called through Water and the Word. If He loves us enough to send His only-begotten Son to die and rise again for us, and this while we were yet His enemies, will He not all the more give us what we need to remain faithful to Him now that we are His children?
Next week, we’ll take a look at just what it would take to declare an end to this pandemic. But until then, may the peace of God be with you all.
- Pastor Brian
“Behold I am making all things new” - Rev. 21:5
So what’s new? Probably not much as we go through week 7 of the pandemic shut down. Yet there is newness all around us. Many of us have a new routine, new ways of working or learning, new ways of getting our groceries or other items, and with Spring fully sprung there is new life all around us. The Bible uses the term “new” for God’s activities about 150 times (depending on how the Greek and Hebrew were translated). Some of the best known and most beloved Scriptures are about new. “Behold, I am doing a new thing, even now it springs up” (Isaiah 43) or St. Paul’s great words, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come.” (II Cor. 5:17). God always going about doing something new for His people - but what about a “new normal”?
It is certain that this time of social distancing and a “new” (aka novel) virus has reshaped our world and caused a shift in so many things. As many states begin to slowly reopen, we see we’re not just hitting a reset button to before SARS-CoV2b came on the scene. Things are and will be different than they were in February of this year. Some of these new things may not last, many of them are permanent changes. But, as with all change, we resist embracing the new and long for the “good old days.” But as Billy Joel once sang, “The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”
Even once we are free to leave our homes and businesses reopen, things will be different. Face masks and “social distancing” will likely be the new normal until we develop a herd immunity, have a widely available vaccine, a proven treatment or pharmaceutical option, or some combination of the above. Our essential workers will still be essential, but how many of the non-essentials will survive or survive in the same form they had before this virus hit our shores?
I saw today that a major clothing retailer is seeking bankruptcy protection and many other retailers are also having a great struggle until “retail therapy” can begin again. Some of these “brick and mortar” stores won’t be reopening. Now that getting what you need by phone or by Amazon or other online retailer has become the norm, some who have not embraced the digital age will be left behind.
I was really looking forward to Top Gun 2020 next month, but now it’s unclear if movie theaters will be reopening or showing high cost, current movies anytime soon. Will people still want to go to the movies and sit in a crowded theater jammed in with other people before we have a good handle on this pandemic? On the plus side, there may be a resurgence of the Drive-In theatre. Many movies are planning to go straight to VoD (video on demand) like Trolls 2 did. Concert venues are expected to be very light, even for “stars”, as people don’t want to take the risk of contracting the virus and bringing to others. The entertainment industry has certainly changed.
Most workers have now started working from home (those that can do so anyway). Many of these workers have found that skipping the long commute, having to buy lunch each day, and dealing with office politics and coworkers, is something they want to keep skipping. Businesses are looking at their production and if the high cost of office space in Manhattan is justified. If the workers can get the work done from home, why should we pay $xx / yr. For offices, office furniture, copier and equipment leases, etc. The work from home model might be here to stay.
How we receive health care is also undergoing a change into something new. I had two Dr. appointments on the same day last week - both were done by telecare or video conferencing. Of course each doctor used a different program and these were ones I had never used before (Google Duo and CDoc), but I was able to see them and they could see and hear me, and whatever health issue needed to be addressed was taken care of without having to enter their office. My prescriptions were electronically sent to the pharmacy who then emailed me when they were ready to be picked up, or I had the option of having them mailed so I wouldn’t have to leave the house. Some “experts” make the claim that up to 70% of what we see a doctor for can just as easily be handled over these new communication channels. Of course, surgery or blood work, or many other health matters do require a visit or an in person activity, but tele-medicine is rapidly becoming the new normal for non emergencies.
As early as March 10 schools started shutting down from preschool to the university level. Yesterday Gov. Murphy said that schools will not be reopening this academic year and learning from home will continue. While many struggle with teaching their children (especially this Common Core way of doing things), some have embraced an educational model closer to homeschooling with its fluid schedule and multiple ways of teaching a lesson. On the college level, classes are now being taught online and even graduations are being done via Zoom or other video streaming services. College students have adapted to this new way of learning and for many disciplines the cost of in-person learning (with tens of thousands of dollars per year for room and board and other fees) just doesn’t make sense. The diploma is the same whether done online for $10,000 or on campus for $50,000 / year. So is it worth going back to college in the fall? Is it worth starting college if it can be closed down 1/2 way through a semester? Granted some “applied sciences” majors like nursing, chemistry, mechanical engineering and the like need to have in person lab work done. But for many colleges and universities there is a new normal.
Our society is certainly undergoing significant shifts in what we consider “normal”, but I’ve always though that normal is highly overrated and abnormal far more exciting. But even with these shifts to a “new” normal, there are some things that never change. God’s love for us in Christ Jesus does not depend on if we’re asymptomatic or on a ventilator - He loves us all the same. Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf and in our place does not depend if we embrace new technologies or methods of doing things. His abiding presence with us through the Holy Spirit whom He put within us at our baptisms does not go away if our circumstances change. Even with all the changes this pandemic lockdown has unleashed (many of which were already happening), we can trust in the unchangeableness (immutability) of God.
Next week we’ll look at what the “new normal” might look like for the church and what new things God is doing among His people. Until then, be sure to catch our Facebook live devotions Wednesday nights at 7 PM and tune into our podcasts and Zoom services as you are able. Peace be with you all.
- Pastor Brian
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, not your son or daughter, nor your manservant nor maidservant, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord mad the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. - Ex. 20:8-11
What is worship? Does reading my Bible alone and praying count as worship?
Do we have to gather in a special place to worship? With all the disruptions social distancing has brought about, our understanding of what “counts” as worship is one of the many things under review. The governmental mandate to limit gatherings to less than 10 people - or canceling congregating in any number larger than your immediate household - has let to an explosion of creativity by worship leaders. Preaching from the rooftop while congregants sit in their enclosed cars listening through an FM broadcast, live stream (Zoom et. al.) services “participated” in at home, YouTube of worship services to be watched whenever it is convenient, and a host of other ways to proclaim what the Lord has done have become the new normal. But are the other ways of “doing Church” worship? That’s a hard question to answer with many parts
Let’s start with the day and time and the mindset that says “I’ll do it when it’s convenient for me.” From a purely legalistic perspective (I.e. the Pharisees), even Christians do not worship because they do it on the wrong day. The Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, which would be Saturday. While our culture (and many calendars) consider Sunday the last part of the week-end, Sunday is actually the first day of the week and so not the Sabbath day of Exodus 20. Christians have always gathered on the first day of the week as that is the day Christ rose from the dead. We often refer to it as “the Lord’s day” and maybe we should rename it SONday. So does it really matter what day we worship on? St. Paul was confronted with this question and sets out his thinking in Romans 14:5. He says all days are now holy in Christ and no one day is better (or worse) than another so whichever day you - plural - pick is fine. The point being pick one day, as a group, and stick to it. Regularity and frequency is more important than slavish observance of the Law. That one person watches the video on Sunday and another Wednesday and a third listens to the podcast on Friday and yet all claim to worshiping is patently false. Worship is a corporate event (see Psalms of Ascent - #s 120 to 134) and cannot be done alone. It necessitates some form of coming together or gathering for it to be truly worship. Those who are self centered and worship “when it works for me” (emphasis on me) have denied the fellowship which a key component of both worship and discipleship. So we could change our worship time to Wednesday night - if everyone thought that was time which works best, then Wednesday would be the new Sabbath day. Whatever it is, the key component is that it is a group decision. Churches that have 2 services on different days and times with different styles (more on that later) are really two churches using the same building and administrative structure.
Can I worship from home? Do we have to meet in a building set apart (consecrated / made holy) for that purpose for it to be worship? WHERE we worship God is an important issue and one that has been wrestled with since man first turned his eyes towards the heavens and sought his Creator. Adam and Eve walked and talked with God in the Garden in Eden. Abraham and the patriarchs built an alter wherever they were encamped, usually on a mountaintop. The “high places” were always seen as holy - maybe because as one rises in elevation one got closer to God’s dwelling place? But then there was that whole Tower of Babel incident. Throughout Christian history churches would often be built on the highest peak around or they would create a “mountain peak” known as a steeple to reach up into the heavens. And it’s not only Christians who have this concept of the high places being holy. It is no accident that the Greeks (and Romans) had their gods and goddesses living on Mt. Olympus. Many of the Buddhist temples are on mountain peaks. Maybe this has something to do with being “a city on a hill” or it’s just that a towering building on a high place has better visibility. We can think of Redeemer with its 53 foot peak and 2/3 of the sanctuary being devoted to roof space. Once the exodus came, God’s people worshiped wherever they pitched their tents, especially THE tent - the Tabernacle. Once God’s people entered the promised land, the high places of Shiloh, Shechem, Bethel, Hebron, and finally Mt. Zion / Jerusalem became places for worship. After the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple complex, God’s people had trouble adjusting to worship (see Psalm 137). For New Testament Christians, the place of worship was wherever they could meet without the Romans breaking down the doors - usually in people’s homes or by a river or in the woods. It wasn’t until Constantine gave the church the use of old Roman basilicae in 325 AD that Christians had church buildings (and the floor plan hasn’t changed in 1700 years).
So does where we worship God really matter? Isn’t Jesus “wherever two or three are gathered in my name”? Well, yes and no. The key part of Matthew 18:20 cited above is “in my name”. So whether it is 37 Newton-Sparta Road or 121 Spring Street or Jerusalem, the key thing is gathering en masse in Jesus’ name. So one person opening their Bible or downloading a podcast is not worship. A group of Christians getting together for _____, but not calling on Jesus’ name is not worship.
Worship requires God’s presence amongst the worshipers. But isn’t God present everywhere? Well, yes, in one sense. God is present everywhere, but that’s not what we’re talking about with God’s presence in worship. This is what we call God’s sacramental presence, where He comes among us to give us His gifts of Word and Sacrament. BOTH are necessary for it to be His sacramental presence. So unless you are baptizing in your kitchen sink - which, I suppose, could be done in cases of emergency - and / or you have a duly called and ordained servant of the Word to preach, teach, and administer the Sacrament as a steward of the mysteries of God, then it’s not worship nor is the space where it’s happening a church in the proper use of the Word. But we’ll cover content and style more next week.
Meanwhile, we endure our “Babylonian Captivity” for a few more weeks, longing for the day when we too “rejoice with those who said to me ‘Let us go up to the House of the Lord’” (Psalm 122:1). Soon our worship will resume and we will celebrate our Lord’s resurrection properly. If current projections hold true and Gov. Murphy holds to his plan to start easing restrictions by May 15, we might be able to gather in Christ’s name around His gifts on May 17 or 24. Hopefully the curve is flattening and with some alterations to keep everyone safe we’ll go up to the house of the Lord soon. Until that time, continue to pray for our front line health care workers, those afflicted with the Corona virus, and our nation as a whole. Keep reading your Bibles (I’d recommend going through Romans or the letters to the Corinthians for starters) and doing all that is necessary so when the angel of death / Corvid-19 passes over we may leave our time of captivity with joy.
- Peace in Christ;
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?…But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for He has been good to me.
- Psalm 13:1-2a, 5-6
How much longer is this lock down going to last? When can we go back to work or at least get a haircut or nails done or any of the other shops reopen? When will I be able to gather for worship again? As we enter the 4th week of the social distancing experiment we start looking to the end of our quarantine - which was only supposed to be 14 days (now day 23 as I write this). I feel a lot like the dad on the road trip who keeps hearing from the back seat, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
I think back to many accounts of “social distancing” in the Bible and realize there is a pattern. When the “floodgates of heaven were opened” in Noah’s day, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. When Moses went alone up Mt. Sinai to get God’s Law, he was up there for 40 days and 40 nights. When Jesus went by Himself (unless you count the Devil as company) to the wilderness, He was there 40 days and 40 nights. In the cleanliness laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, we see a quarantine (must live outside the camp) that lasts 40 days until one is considered “clean” again. It makes me wonder if this ancient pattern of 40 days is just how God made this world to function.
According to the latest from the CDC on the SARS-Cov2-19 virus and its effects; the time from exposure to viral shedding (when you are contagious) is 10 days. The time from exposure to appearance of symptoms (incubation time) is 14 days - so one can spread it for 4 days before any clue of being infected. From the onset of symptoms to hospitalization (80% of cases do not require hospitalization) is 10-14 days based on overall health and any underlying / pre-existing conditions. From hospitalization or treatment to death or recover averages about 7-10 days. So let’s do the math: 14 days from exposure to symptoms + 14 days before symptoms require external care + 10-14 days of hospitalization = 38-42 days (40 days on average). Hmm, maybe the 40 days “outside the camp” was the right way to go. Can God’s wisdom (ancient and ____ as it may be) really be as good or better than CDC’s guidance and directives? It’s amazing how often science with all its “new” breakthroughs and “we know more now than any time before us” attitude simply says what God has said for the last 3,500 years or so.
As we look to Gov. Murphy’s daily briefings, we keep hearing about the difficulty of declaring a peak in the curve. As of today’s briefing we should be hitting the peak sometime in the next few days if we haven’t already. That would put us 20-24 days into the “stay at home” time frame. We’ll be at peak for 3-7 days to make sure the daily figures are a trend, not just an anomaly. Then it will take another week or two to make sure the curve has flattened. So all in all, about 40 days from executive order 107 to the gradual lifting of restrictions. If all this holds true, sometime around May 1st we should start getting “back to normal”, but that new normal will be quite different from pre-Covid19 times - but that’s next week’s blog.
I’d like to end with the words of one of New Jersey’s prophets. While not canonical, many look to these words for guidance and encouragement. Mr. Jon Bon Jovi wrote; “Woah, we’re half-way there. Woah, livin’ on a prayer. Take my hand (from 6ft away of course) and we’ll make it I swear. Woah, livin’ on a prayer.” As we hopefully come to the halfway point, I hope you will continue to pray that this plague is peaked and we will see fewer hospitalizations and deaths over the next few days and weeks. - Pastor Brian
And if Christ has not been raised from the dead, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
I Corinthians 15:17-19
This is bound to be one of the strangest Holy Weeks I think I’ll ever come across. No palm procession and cries of “Hosanna”. No reenactment of Jesus’ final meal before His passion. No words from the cross or singing of “O Sacred Head now Wounded.” And to top it all off - no Easter! Wait a minute, no Easter?
Can Easter really be canceled? It sounds a bit like the Sheriff of Nottingham's diatribe in one of the Robin Hood movies; “That’s it! Cancel the kitchen scraps for widows and orphans. No more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas!”
I know we’re talking about Easter, not Christmas, but it still begs the question - can you really call off Easter? For that answer I turn to perhaps the greatest movie of all time, The Princess Bride:
Wesley: I said I would always come for you, why didn’t you wait for me?
B Cup: I will never doubt again.
Wesley: There will never be a need.
Boy: Ughh. They’re kissing again! Do we have to hear the kissing part?
God showed His true love for us in giving His only-begotten Son into death on the cross in payment for all our sins and raising Him to life again. Death could not stop true love, it just delayed it until the third day. So can Easter be called off? No, but it might be delayed awhile. I am reminded of one of the great Easter hymns (LSB 469) “Vain the stone, the watch, the seal; Christ hath burst the gates of hell. Death in vain forbids His rise, Christ hath opened paradise.” Pilate tried to keep Jesus in the tomb, and failed. Satan certainly didn’t want Him to rise, but He did! There was simply no stopping God from showing how much He loves us by breaking the power of death to frighten us into submission. Call off Easter? It will not happen!
Yet in the age of a deadly, easily spread virus, we may need to hold off on our communal celebrations for a while. But that’s OK. Easter has been celebrated on many different days and many different ways throughout the ages. You may have noticed some years Easter comes early and other years it’s much later. Why is that?
Well, the way we in the Western Church calculate the date of Easter is that it is the first Sunday following the first full moon following the Vernal (Spring) Equinox. That means Easter could be as early as March 21st or as late as April 18th. The Celtic Church in the days of St. Patrick has Easter coincide with the pagan festival (sabbat) of Beltaigne - a spring fertility celebration. This was one of the chief causes of discord between the church in Eire and that of Rome (Rome won out at the Council of Whitby in 665 AD). The Orthodox churches (Eastern, Russian, Ukrainian, etc.) have their own formulation and their own date - which may be a week or two off from the Western date. Indigenous churches around the world follow various datings for the day they celebrate the Resurrection.
Whenever the date of Easter is, we should also remember that this is just the start of 40-50 days of feasting and celebrating. Ascension day is 40 days after Easter and Pentecost, the next liturgical season, begins on the 50th day after Easter. Also, the reason we worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, is a constant reminder of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil (see Matthew 28:1-10).
So what day we get to have the joyous celebrations and sing our Alleluias once more is not as important as the events of that first Easter - whatever calendar day it was. We celebrate week after week by gathering on “the Lord’s Day” to hail Him as our Risen savior. Yes, we are postponing the ceremony, but not the celebration. We can rejoice in Christ’s victory - now our victory (I Cor. 15:57) every day of the year. Vain was the watch, the stone, the seal - and vain will be the novel coronavirus. Christ hath burst the gates of hell and we are given eternal life through Him, no matter what happens in this brief period we call “life”. While I long to be with you all again and celebrate Christ’s triumph, we know we will have all eternity to celebrate this victory with all the faithful from all ages. Until then let us take up the cry, “He is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
Or do we need, as some people do, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. - 2 Corinthians 3:1-3
Well here we are in week 3 of a two-week isolation. According to the latest news reports, it appears the experiment known as “social distancing” is having at least some effect. It should be remembered that this “stay at home” order was never meant to eliminate the virus, merely slow it down or “flatten the curve” and give our dedicated medical personnel a chance to get the supplies they need and keep hospitals from being overrun.
While we continue our Social Distancing, we must note that we are really talking about physical distancing - keeping at least 6 feet away from each other. While many studies are seeking to see of 6 feet is too little or too much distance, we do not ever want to cut off social relations with each other. Fellowship is still a vital aspect of Christian discipleship. We cannot practice our faith in a vacuum. Christians need to be in touch with their fellow Christians. But how do we do this if we cannot have gatherings of more than 10 people and even those 10 should keep a 6 ft. spread?
Fortunately, though movie theaters, churches, restaurants, and other gathering places may be involuntarily closed, our communications lines are still working (which often go down in other natural disasters). With so many ways to communicate with each other, there is no reason for being “cut off” or “forsaken”. True isolation is a personal choice as we have many ways to remain in fellowship with each other.
The most modern way, you are reading now. Blogs, Facebook, TikTok, Youtube, Twitter, Reddit, and all the other internet-based ways of connecting are readily available. For Easter service we are looking into various live streaming ways of making the service available. Right now, Zoom is in the lead, though the free service restricts us to 40 minutes or less. In this way we can still gather around the Word in an interactive way and join in singing, praying, and hearing God’s Word while still maintaining a safe physical distance from one another. Television would also fall into this “live stream” way of fellowship but that would be beyond our capabilities at this time. With a computer with internet access or a smart phone you can simply log in at a certain time on a certain site (to be provided once we get the details worked out) and we can worship together again - sort of (more in 2 weeks).
Do you remember the days when you had to spin the wheel on a phone and hope you advanced it enough to get the right number? Or how about having to stay within 6 feet of the phone mounted to the wall with the heavy receiver balanced between your shoulder and your ear? Now our phones have speakers, are cordless, and can go everywhere we go - or whatever room we choose to spend our time in. Sometime this week, a corps of phone callers will begin their task of calling every member every week until this crisis is past and regular worship and gatherings resume. Prayer - the original wireless communication - is just as effective by phone as it is in person. We can and should use this means of staying together as well. More than just idle gossip, we can make use of our telecare team and make sure that needs are known and, to the best of our abilities, taken care of.
And there is another way of practicing fellowship, but it is really, really, really, “old school” - write a letter. When Paul was under house arrest (social distancing / stay at home, Roman style), he still wanted to hear about what was happening in the places he had visited and longed to get back to. He wanted to share and explain the hope we have as Christ’s beloved to those who had but recently come to faith. While he did have occasional visitors, much of how he “kept in touch” was by writing epistles - or letters to the various congregations. Some of his most profound and emotional epistles come from the time when he was “socially distanced” from these congregations. While letter writing, especially a handwritten letter, has become something of a lost art, this is also a method we can avail ourselves of in times of self-imposed quarantine. The USPS is considered an “essential business” and is still up and running (at least the bills are still coming through!). Maybe as we while away the hours at home we can pull out pen and paper or that box of assorted greeting cards and send someone an encouraging note. Later this week you should be receiving a letter from the church with a letter to be sent back in the enclosed envelope.
Even though we must keep physically distanced for a few more weeks, let us not become socially distant but devote ourselves to the fellowship as the disciples did after Pentecost (Acts 2:42). In the meantime, keep your ears open to the podcasts and watch for email alerts about the latest updates. In next week’s blog, I will outline our Easter celebration plans - as they now stand - and some of the things we are looking forward to once the pandemic restrictions are lifted. Until then; stay home, stay safe, stay connected, and may God’s peace rest upon you all.
- Pastor Brian
“Social distancing” is the new buzz word for this coronavirus pandemic, but what does the term mean? Does this mean I can’t go to church? Will it really help things? As we begin our weekly web logs (I.e. blog), I’ll try to answer these and other questions either in the blog or as you leave comments below.
Social distancing is kind of a misnomer. What we really want to try to accomplish is physical distancing. This virus spreads by droplets expelled from the lungs of an infected person. According to the CDC, the average person during a strong cough can project those droplets up to 6 feet. Therefore, if we all stay at least 6 feet away from an infected person, we won’t “catch” this virus and potentially spread it to others. This is different than “social” distancing or what many today would call “ghosting” - shutting off contact (even by phone, text, or email) with another person. We certainly want to stay in contact with our brothers and sisters in Christ, just not physically.
As to the efficacy of such physical distancing, it sounds good but is really difficult to practice. IF we could maintain 6 feet of separation, then it should keep the virus from spreading. The problem is that expelled, virus bearing, droplets (known as fomites) can keep the virus alive on various surfaces for varying lengths of time - anything from a few hours to a few days. That is why frequent hand washing and avoiding touching the face is also part of the “social distance” experiment we have begun.
That is the reason that NJ has gone to a “stay in your home” directive, violations of which can result in a disorderly conduct charge with the resultant fines and penalties. So going to church is “disorderly conduct” according to the government - something to bear in mind when you vote this November. The problem with “stay at home” and “social distancing” is that we still need supplies and human beings are social animals - even introverts leave their homes every so often. Thus all “non-essential businesses” must close and even the essentials close by 8PM. This is an attempt to limit public exposure, but it wasn’t well thought out. I can’t go to church - where there’s 50 people - because I may catch the virus or, if I have it but don’t have symptoms, pass it along to others; yet I’m encouraged to go to Walmart or Shoprite where there’s 150 people? Until ALL businesses shut down and ALL roads are closed, the virus will continue to spread.
But limiting the rate of spread (viral transmission) is still a good thing. It is hoped that this will “flatten the curve”. The curve refers to peak infection. The higher (or sharper) the curve, the more people are sick all at once. This can then overwhelm the medica system as there are only so many beds, ventilators, etc. This is what we saw happen in Italy and why the death toll was so great. This is also how plagues payed out throughout history. There would be a sharp spike in the number infected, then everyone who could get the plague would have gotten it and the pathogen would “burn out” as the infected ones recovered and developed an acquired immunity. By flattening the curve, we are extending how long the virus will be with us (it’s not going anywhere until there’s immunity by having had it or vaccination) but reducing the number killed by it as our limited medical resources can keep up with those who need help.
So what’s a Christian to do? For now, stay home as much as is possible. The best way to avoid “catching” this virus is to not be exposed to it. But I’m not sick! Are you sure? The bugaboo with this virus (and why it’s a pandemic and the flu is not) is that one can be infected and spreading the virus for days before any symptoms appear, if they appear at all - some 20 to 25% of positive cases show no symptoms. Until the testing problem is solved and we know who is a carrier and who is not we are treat all people as infected. Not fair, but hey, who said life was fair. Aren’t we commanded to worship? Yes, we are. Hebrews 10:25 tells us “Let us not give up meeting together - as some in the habit of doing - but let us encourage one another and all the more as we see the Day approaching.” We also have the third commandment to honor the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. But worship doesn’t have to happen at a building set apart (consecrated) for that purpose. The Church didn’t even have buildings for the first 325 years, yet Christians worshipped. For now we are podcasting (see links on this site) and we hope to begin livestreaming soon. We can read, hear, and study the Word together as families - in fact, the small catechism is so structured for “how the head of the household is to teach his children…” We can pray together either online (prayer list) or as individuals. Celtic Christian Communities have a practice where every member of that community will pause at xx:xx o’clock to join in prayer with all the other members of that community. We can sing or read hymns as individuals or families as Dr. Luther suggests “then go about your work singing a hymn like that of the ten commandments or whatever your devotion might suggest”. The only thing we can’t do for now is gather around the Lord’s Table, but there have been many times in Church history where Christians went weeks or months between receptions of the Lord’s Supper. So it may be different than the worship we’re used to, but it’s still worship.
So how long is this going to last? Well that’s the $64 question. No one really knows. This is a new virus and so how it will behave is anybody’s guess. Some think it will fizzle out like flu once warmer weather arrives - but Hong Kong is tropical and it didn’t slow down there. Some think we just have to break the cycle of transmission through enforced social distancing and it will disappear - though new cases are still springing up in the UK and China after quarantines are lifted. Some believe this virus is here to stay until a vaccine is widely administered sometime in the spring of next year. We simply don’t know. All we can do is take things one day at a time and “let the day’s trouble suffice for the day” (Mt. 6:34) No matter what comes our way, our Shepherd continues to lead and feed His sheep and has done all that is needed to assure us that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation (including a coronavirus), will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen. Yea verily it is so.
As this is the first go at a blog, we’d like your feedback in the comments section below. I am hoping to write a much shorter one each week and have an ongoing discussion in the comments section. As this is a nascent blog the plan as of now is to put forth new material every Wednesday and limit the discussion threads to the topic of the week. If you find this helpful in your faith journey, let us know how we might better use this blog to serve your faith formation. - Pastor Brian
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.