What, after all, is Apollos? What is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe - as the Lord assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow.
I Corinthians 3:5-7
As we continue looking forward to the probable future of Redeemer, we saw last week that due to external and internal factors Redeemer as a sole pastor, independent congregation will not be possible in the near future. We began to look at what it means to have a "part-time pastor" last blog and we’ll continue that exploration this week.
There is one option of merging congregations I think I may have omitted last week. This would be two small congregations deciding to leave their buildings (sold or redeveloped) and buying a new parcel and constructing a new building equidistant to the two former locations. For example, if Redeemer, Newton and Prince of Peace, Hamburg were to merge / combine, they would each sell their church buildings and parsonages and then use those funds to purchase land / buildings in Sparta (roughly 1/2 way between the two) and start a new congregation with new articles of incorporation, constitutions, by-laws, and officers. This option is rarely done due to an “edifice complex” where people are attached more to the building than to the Lord whose building it is, but it does remain an option.
The most typical way of transitioning to part time pastoral coverage is to form a dual-parish arrangement. This method has a long history in our Synod and is fully recognized by Synodical officers. My first call was to such an arrangement in rural Nebraska and now many dual parishes have moved from rural to more urban centers.
In short, two congregations would “share” a pastor and the costs associated thereof. The division may be 50/50 (typical) or 80/20 or anything in between. How much of the pastor’s time “belongs” to each congregation would need to be sorted out before a call is issued and the particulars as to who is responsible for what laid out in the supplement to the vocation which accompanies the call. Both congregations would keep their buildings (and the expenses pertaining thereto) and non-pastoral staff (organists / musicians, janitorial, school, etc.). Both congregations would need to work with each other instead of against each other as so often happens. For example, if the pastor is to be at Church A on Thursdays for the ladies’ aid Bible study, but has a funeral for a member of Church B that same day / time - how do you handle it?
As can be seen above, the main “problem” with this arrangement is the unrealistic expectation of full time pastoral coverage with part time compensation and prior commitments. One of the biggest questions to be dealt with is the Sunday morning schedule. The pastor cannot be in two places at 10 AM every Sunday. If the churches are close enough together (as most dual parishes are) it is possible that the pastor could lead service at Church A at 9 AM and then (traffic permitting) lead services at Church B at 11 AM. Sadly, many churches would rather close than adjust their service times. This happens both formally and informally, Formally, one church removes itself from the dal parish agreement (called a Concord) and then closes its doors. More often it happens informally as some members of church A decide that 9 AM is too early to get up and be ready for church, so they stop coming. Or church B decides 11 AM is too late and that “church takes up the whole day” and so go elsewhere or nowhere. The result is the same, there are too few people (remember the critical mass blog?) to keep this dual parish operational. This is especially true of “special services” like Easter morning and Christmas Eve. BOTH congregations need to be flexible as to their service times for this to work.
Another thing to remember is that these are two independent congregations, each with their own demographics, histories, traditions, and needs. It is not uncommon for them to have two very different worship styles. In my first call the “old” church used Lutheran Worship (LSB wouldn’t come out for another 7 years), the “new” church was still using TLH from 1941 (remember page 5 or 15?). One may have traditional worship and the other a contemporary service. One may be primarily young families with children and the other more mature members. Thus the pastor would need to craft two very different worship services and two completely different sermons, even if the two churches shared the same text. This doubling of preparation time would take away from the pastor’s availability for other ministries throughout the week - remember, he is still working the same # of hours, just in / for two or more locations. There may be 2 shut-ins at one church and 7 at the other, so how do you arrange for a “prefect” 50 / 50 split? How do you deal with Confirmation Class? What about administrative meetings (council, board, voters)?
There are many things that go into forming a dual parish, any one of which could dissolve the agreement / concord. Thus while an attractive option, it works out on paper more often than in reality.
Another model gaining some headway in districts and the Synod as a whole is the “Circuit Rider'' model, which was used by our Synod in its earlier years so there is historical precedent for it. In this model the pastor is called by the Circuit, not one or more congregations. He is then “vacancy” pastor for all congregations in that circuit which called him. At any given time there may be 2-5 vacancies in a circuit and this number is expected to grow as more pastors retire, fewer enter or complete seminary training, and more congregations fall below that “critical mass”. The Circuit Ride would, well, ride (though drive would be the term in the 21st Century) to each of the churches in rotation. The first Sunday, he may be at church B and the second Sunday at church D, and the third Sunday preach and consecrate at church A and so on. While he’s in town, he would visit the sick and shut in and perhaps lead a Bible study or attend an administrative meeting. His compensation package would be split between the 3-4 churches he rides to and possibly with some help from the other churches in the circuit or the district.
So what do these churches do the other 3 Sundays of the month? Well that seems to be the biggest impediment to implementing this plan. Many churches have gone to Communion every Sunday, whereas in the past a monthly reception of the Lord’s Supper was more the norm. Pre-consecrating the elements is not in keeping with our understanding of the Lord’s Supper as laid out in Holy Scripture, and is therefore discouraged. Video streaming (e.g. Kairos) could be an option, as could lay led services. However the non-Communion service happens, the congregations in the Circuit Rider’s zone would have to be comfortable receiving Christ’s body and blood only once a month or be willing to travel to where the pastor is that week.
The other issue with the Circuit Rider is political. Do the 3 or 4 congregations served by the Rider = 1 congregational delegate for District conventions? Can the Rider serve as the circuit’s pastoral delegate for the Synodical convention? Do each of the congregations get a vote for their Circuit Visitor? These and other issues are generating much discussion right now in Church Polity classes at our seminaries, but as of yet no formal statements have been made by the Synod as to suffrage.
Next week, we’ll look at some “out of the box” options when it comes to pastoral coverage. Until then, check your mailbox at church (now open with Covid-19 safety protocols in place) for a letter to help prepare you for our District President’s Sunday which will be August 2nd at our normal worshiping time.
These are the words of Him who holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven lamp stands…You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place.
- Revelation 2:1, 4b-5
Warning: If you are easily offended, shocked, or scared you may wish to skip this
blog. If you think you can handle the truth, even if painful, then read on.
Last week we looked at the ongoing challenges to the Church presented by Covid-19 and the governmental response to it. Stay at home orders, restrictions on public gatherings, social distancing, and many other responses to this pandemic will likely be with us for a few years to come. Even if (and its a big if) a safe and effective virus can be developed, it will still take a year or more to make over 300 million doses for the US, distribute them to doctors, and give them patients. It is estimated that we would need 70-80% of the population vaccinated to create “herd immunity” and thus be safe (a relative term) against this pathogen. This assumes the virus does not mutate - which viruses are well known to do. So we may be dealing with this external “threat” for some time.
But there are also internal issues, ones we have some control over, that also should make us question whether reopening is the best thing to do. I think a good way of describing this is to look at the church like a nuclear power plant. I know nuclear physics is far more complex and nuanced than I’ll explain here, but bear with me.
In its most basic form a nuclear power plant is a controlled thermonuclear bomb. Instead of all the energy being released at once, it is a controlled reaction. An amount of fissile (splittable) material, usually Uranium235, is split by neutrons into the lighter elements of Krypton (sorry Superman) and Barium. This splitting releases more neutrons which impact more atoms of U235 and a large amount of gamma, x-ray, and infrared (heat) radiation. This infrared radiation or heat turns water into steam which drives turbines which generates electricity.
The first problem is that U235 is very rare in nature - less than .035% of all uranium. More than 98% of the uranium in the world is U238, which can be split but does not shed extra neutrons to sustain a reaction. So the uranium must first be enriched. Usually this is done by spinning the ore in a centrifuge and the heavier U238 is separated from the lighter U235. For every ton of uranium put in the centrifuge only 2 - 4 ounces of U235 emerges. It is only enriched uranium that is capable of sustained fission reactions.
So what does that have to do with the Church? As you know the Church is made up of believers, but not all believers are the same. Some are labeled as being more “mature” in their faith or more “practiced”. I prefer the term “enriched”. Those that practice the disciplines of a disciple tend to be more “energetic” in living out their faith. Things like frequent and regular worship, prayer, tithing and / or giving of time, talents, and treasures, service to congregation and community are all hallmarks of this enrichment process. How many members of Redeemer are actively involved in these enrichment activities? Without a certain amount of these enriched disciples, the church will lose power and eventually grow cold and shut down. This brings us to our next point.
Not only does a reactor need enriched uranium to operate, it needs a certain amount of it, known as a critical mass. If there are not enough atoms for the newly freed neutrons to collide with, the reaction will slow or cease altogether. The same is true of a congregation. There needs to be a particular number of people connected to that congregation for the congregation to be sustainable and viable. Church demographers vary in their opinions as to how many are needed to support a full time pastor, organist, and other staff and also do the work of enriching and reaching out that the Church is called to do. Numbers vary but most seem to think that 50-75 average attendance in worship is what’s needed to keep a church running (keep the reaction going - the critical mass). Sometimes it may be less if there are endowments or other resources or if the fewer than 50 is especially “enriched”, but this is rare. We just had our reopening service with 33 in attendance. Can we keep our building, programs, and staff at current levels with only 33 people? Probably not.
The other way critical mass manifests itself is in offerings. While the church is not and never has been a business with finance as its primary concern, funds are needed for the church to do what it is called to do. We have done a fairly good job of limiting expenses and our operational costs are much the same as they were 10 years ago. Yet we have a bit less than 1/2 the people we did 10 years ago. That means to pay for operations at 2010 levels (and we know prices have risen for everything from what they were in 2010) each person would need to give twice as much as they did in 2010. If we stay at an attendance rate of 33, then each person would need to give 3x what they did 10 years ago - and that’s if expenses are able to be kept at 2010 levels. As we see from the financial reports, this has not happened and by the end of October we will be unable to fully pay our bills or compensate our staff - both called and hired. It’s not really a matter of “people not giving enough” it’s more a matter of “Not enough people giving.”
So what can we do about this? How can we avoid either a meltdown or a cold core? There are many options, all them carrying differing levels of risk and discomfort as we move into this “new normal”. Some may not work out as planned due to forces beyond our control which we have no foreknowledge of - like a second shut down with a “2nd wave” in October / November or some other natural disaster. Our District President will be with us in early August and after leading the service, he’ll be having an open discussion on transitioning to a part-time pastor. We’ll look at some of these part-time pastorate models in next week’s blog.
Whatever the future holds for Redeemer, there is one thing we can count on. That one thing is that God will never leave us or forsake us. Congregations come and go, but the Church will endure until Christ’s return. The love of God in Christ Jesus is not bound to a place, time, or particular way of doing things. Even in challenging times such as these, we can look forward in the sure and certain hope that we are not on our own, but that God is with us wherever we may go, so we go forth without fear. May God’s peace remain with you all.
- Pastor Brian
These are the words of Him who holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven lamp stands…You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place.
- Revelation 2:1, 4b-5
Warning: If you are easily offended, shocked, or scared you may wish to skip this
blog. If you think you can handle the truth, even if painful, then read on.
On June 15, Governor Murphy set forth the guidelines for indoor gatherings. Now we, provided certain safety measures are met, can gather for worship once more. While we can reopen, the question remains if we should reopen. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that it is the best thing to do - see I Cor. 6:12
While we have measures in place to reduce the rate of viral transmission, there is no way of eliminating viral spread. SARS-CoV-2 is a virus, and it will do what a virus does, which is to mutate and spread until it has infected every person it possibly can. Even if we were to mask at all times and stay home for weeks on end; the virus would still find a way to get to you - that’s just what viruses do. We saw that the infection rate (# of positive test results, hospitalizations, and deaths) continued to skyrocket even after businesses were closed and people told to stay in their homes. If the corona virus is still “a clear and present danger”, why then are we gathering for worship?
Well, it really boils down to our understanding of the Lord’s Supper and what it means to be the Church. I know of some churches in our area that already have reopened, others (like Redeemer) that are opening soon, and others which will not reopen until much later. Those that are holding off reopening until August or September (or later) are doing so, in part, to see if gathering for worship leads to a “spike” in Covid-19 cases or not. Also the guidance for reopening seems to shift from week to week and many are waiting for “the final word” of which mitigation measures are effective and which were wishful thinking. One of the unifying traits of all the churches that are delaying reopening is a Calvinistic understanding of the Lord’s Supper - be it Presbyterian, Methodist, Reformed, or other.
In these church bodies, the Lord’s Supper is seen as merely a memorial meal; it is an “object lesson” given to help us remember what Christ has done for us. This is due to a magisterial use of reason which says that “is” must mean something other than “is” because Christ’s physical body and blood could not be present in, with, and under the earthly forms of bread and wine. This bread and wine (or grape juice for Methodists) cannot be Christ’s body and blood because that wouldn’t make sense. Since it is not Christ’s body and blood, the words of John 6:53-59 do not apply and God’s gifts of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life are not given through the Lord’s Supper. Thus skipping the Lord’s Supper is no big deal.
It’s entirely different for we who hold to God’s Word as infallible and doing what it says it will do. When Jesus said, “This is my body”, He meant this IS His body - we don’t know how it is His body, but that is what He said. If He meant that it only “represents” His body and blood, He would have used words such as like or as - this bread is like my body, which is given for you. That’s how He did it with the parables and many other teachings, but not at the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Here there is no like or as or metaphorical speech, so we must accept that what He said is true or make Him to be a liar.
If this really is His body and blood, and, according to John 6, only those who eat of His flesh and drink of His blood have eternal life, forgiveness of sins, and salvation from everlasting death, then we would have to physically eat and drink of His body and blood to obtain those gifts. Simply watching it on Zoom or remembering His Passion is not enough; we must “take and eat, the body of Christ, broken for you.” and “take also and drink the true blood of Christ, shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.” This is the primary way that the forgiveness of sins becomes real to us. Yes, we also receive the forgiveness of sins through the pronouncement of absolution by Christ’s representative, but it is through the Sacrament of the Altar that we can see, smell, taste, feel, and hear the forgiveness of sins given to us through Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.
Given the importance of this Sacrament and the fact that it cannot be live streamed or delivered in any other way than in person, we gather to receive the gifts of God. How long can one go without receiving the Sacrament? That’s going to vary person to person. There were times in our LCMS history where once a month was considered enough. Other times in our history we opted for quarterly or every other week - as we did with our drive through distribution. But if we open up our Bibles and Small Catechisms we’ll find that the Lord’s Supper was the central point of God’s people gathering together and Luther instructs young and old to partake of the Sacrament as often as it is offered. In Luther’s time that was daily! So we make the decision to resume gathering, in part, due to the necessity of offering the Lord’s Supper to souls in need of God’s grace and mercy.
The other reason to reopen has to do with our understanding of worship as a participatory event. Worship is not passive, where you just sit back and absorb what’s being “performed”. Bible reading and prayer can be done alone, singing of hymns and songs can be done solo or in small groups, but worship requires the body of Christ to assemble at a set place and time. We looked at this is past blogs and there explained how Zoom services and podcasts and other “stay at home” worship-like events aren’t really worship at all. We are commanded to worship in the 3rd Commandment and other places in Scripture.
Worship is not optional for a Christian. Those who claim to be Christian but say they do not need to join with others for worship “deceive themselves and the truth is not in them”. (I John 1:8b). While we were forced to suspend gathering in person for 3 months, some congregations in the mission field often only gathered for worship on a quarterly basis- usually for the great feasts of the Church year; Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week / Easter, and Pentecost; but this was always seen as less than ideal and the model of gathering on the Lord’s Day was to be preferred. We cannot simply disregard the Third Commandment and think that there are no consequences to us as individuals and as a congregation.
While these are the two primary reasons why we reopen earlier rather than later, there are many other reasons why we should pause and ask “Should we reopen?” Is this corona-virus and the changes wrought by it the final “nail in the coffin lid” and so is it time we consider closing out church doors for good? We’ll look at these next week and President Steinbronn will be coming to Redeemer soon to further explore these issues. Until then let us take advantage of the fact that we can gather for worship still to receive the blessings of Almighty God and know His peace. Amen.
- Pastor Brian
Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise Him in His mighty heavens; praise Him for His acts of power; praise Him for His surpassing greatness. Praise Him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise Him with the harp and lyre; praise Him with the clash of cymbals, praise Him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. - Psalm 150
So how have you been spending your days while under the stay at home directives? I’ve been going through my CD collection and seeing what I can convert to digital or download into the cloud still haven’t figured out how to listen to the cloud in the car yet, so I’ll hold on to the CDs. I even found some “old” cassette tapes, better get out the q tips and rubbing alcohol and see if I can fire up a tape deck. No 8-tracks! I’m old but I’m not THAT old.
Anyway, my last few blogs have been pretty serious, so I thought I’d have a little fun with this one. Some of my favorite songs are songs that set a story to music. Thus a lot of my repertoire is of the folk music / 60’s protest genre. A good example of this is “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot. But dome of my favorites from all genres are those that are introduced by, interrupted by, or ended with a spoken monologue. So this week, I’d like to play “Name that Tune” using just the spoken parts of various songs - some of which you may know. I’ll post the answers at the end, but it’s no fair skipping ahead. Good luck!
#1 Breathe deep the gathering gloom; watch lights fade from every room;
Bedsitter people look back in lament, another day’s useless energies spent
Impassioned lovers wrestle as one, lonely man cries out for love and has none
New mother picks up and suckles her son. Senior citizens wish they were young
O cold hearted orb that rules the night, removing colours from our sight.
Red is grey and yellow white, but we decide which is right
And which is an illusion.
#2 On the side of a hill in the deep forest green
Tracing of sparrow on snow crested ground
In blankets and bed clothes the child of the mountains
Sleeps unaware of the clarion call
On the side of a hill, with a sprinkling of leaves
She washes the grave with silvery tears
A soldier cleans and polishes a gun
War bellows blazing in scarlet battalions
Generals order their soldiers to kill
And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten
#3 Oh my God, Becky, look at her butt! It is sooo big.
She looks like one of those rap guys’ girlfriends.
Who understands those rap guys? They only talk to her ‘cause she looks
like a total prostitute, okay? I mean, her butt, it’s just so big. Ughh.
I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s out there, I mean, uggh, gross!
#4 O for a voice like thunder, and a tongue to drown the throat of war
When the senses are shaken, and the soul is driven to madness, Who can stand?
When the souls of the oppressed fight in the troubled air that rages, who can stand?
When the whirlwind of fury comes from the throne of God, when the frowns of
his countenance drives the nations together, who can stand?
When Sin claps his broad wings over the battle,
and sails rejoicing in the flood of death;
When souls are torn to everlasting fire, and fiends of Hell rejoice upon the slain.
O who can stand?
O who hath caused this? O who can answer at the throne of God? The Kings
and Nobles of the Land have done it! Hear it not, Heaven, thy Ministers have
#5 Darkness falls across the land The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood To terrorize your neighborhood
And whomsoever shall be found Without the soul for getting down
Must stand and face the hounds of hell And rot inside a corpse's shell.
The foulest stench is in the air The funk of forty thousand years
And grisly ghouls from every tomb Are closing in to seal your doom
And though you fight to stay alive Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist The evil of the thriller (maniacal laughter)
Have you guessed yet? Song #1 never made it very far on the billboard charts, but it always places in the top 5 of make-out songs - Nights in White Satin by the Moody Blues, released in 1967. The second song came out in 1966 as the US was becoming embroiled in a war in southeast Asia. The songwriters wrote a “canticle” which Paul Simon sung / spoke as Art Garfunkel carried the melody to a medieval ballad called Scarborough Faire. #3 I wasn’t sure if I was going to put on, but one cannot hear this intro and not know “Baby’s Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot. You almost have to hear it in a Valley Girl accent. The fourth is one of my favorites and is actually part of a poem written by William Blake in 1810. It is read by Lord Douglas Campbell of the Royal Edinburgh Shakespeare Company. It is an epilogue to Loreena McKennitt’s “Lullaby” which was released in 1985. I highly recommend you-tubing this to hear it read properly. The last one I hope you got. If you need a clue, think Vincent Price, for this is the epilogue from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” of 1982.
So why these five? I’m sure that you may have other songs which have monologues before, during, or after the music. The point is that music can move us and lift our hearts and imaginations to places we’d never otherwise go. The Psalmists also had this heart of a poet, though it gets a bit lost in translation sometimes. Music, poetry, the arts in general have a special place in our hearts and minds and every so often we may hear an echo of heaven. Happy listening.
- Pastor Brian
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;
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.