Monday, May 4, 2020

Church In The Time Of The Virus (Episode 11): A Few Thoughts Have Been Brewing

When churches suspended their weekly brick and mortar meetings, I decided to take some time to address online what it looks like for the church to be the church in times like this. Thus, The Church In The Time Of The Virus. I began posting this on my church's Facebook page several weeks ago; since then, I have had some thoughtful conversations sparked by some of the issues I addressed. Because of that - and because I like wrestling with important ideas - each post is going to follow this format:
  • Video
  • Transcript
  • Reflections
The beautiful thing about the reflections part is that I can constantly update it, so the conversation can continue! You are welcome to offer helpful comments in the comment section and be a part of this conversation/archival record (as local and modest as it is).

(Read and Watch Episode 1: Introduction)
(Read and Watch Episode 2:Fearless, Not Fearful)
(Read and Watch Episode 3: Bold, But Not Foolhardy)
(Read and Watch Episode 4: Sacrificial Of Self, Not Others)
(Read and Watch Episode 5: Faith-fullness Involves Trust)
(Read and Watch Episode 6: Faithfulness Requires Humble Obedience)
(Read and Watch Episode 7: The Church's History During Plagues)
(Read and Watch Episode 8: Thinking With Both Hands)
(Read and Watch Episode 9: Spurgeon And The Plague Of London)
(Read and Watch Episode 10: Thinking With Both Hands)
(Read and Watch Episode 12: Is COVID -19 A Judgment From God)
(Read and Watch Episode 13: Romans 12-14 - Coronavirus Version)
(Episode 14: Dear American Christian)
(Episode 15: Civil (Dis)Obedience)

Episode 11: A Few Thoughts Have Been Brewing



I've had something brewing for a while that I think I'm going to have a hard time articulating, but I at least want to try. 

I've been watching how our nation and Michigan in particular have been responding to the lockdown measures during the coronavirus. As I read the news and scroll through opinions on my social media feeds, there's often a lot of heat and very little light. I get it. There's a lot of conflicting information, and there's a lot at stake, and emotions are high. 

On the one hand, there are human lives and health directly impacted by the coronavirus. On the other hand, there are human lives and health that will be directly impacted by a looming economic crisis. Poverty is a hotbed for ill health; economic collapse is usually accompanied by a rise in suicide, addictions, etc. We are now receiving warnings about how food production is being disrupted. 

The virus is taking a toll on health and life right now - we are approaching 70,000 deaths in the United States, and since April 7th it has passed cancer and heart disease for average daily deaths and become the #1 cause of death in the US -  but there is also great potential for a crippled economy impacting human life and health in the future, perhaps before too long. 

So I get it. A rock right in front of us and a hard place just over the horizon. 

I’m not interested in getting into the politics. Instead, I've been processing how Christians and the church have been responding. Initially, in spite of some misgivings about canceling services  - an act which basically hadn't happened since 1918 in the United States -  it seemed like most churches in general were supportive of social distancing because of the speculation of the toll it would take on human life if we didn't. Many churches immediately ramped up their efforts to serve their local community with food, clothing, and household goods. But as the stay-at-home orders have stretched on, discontent and frustration has mounted both in the church and in our nation. This is what I want to explore.

Part of the discussion has to be about how we as Christians understand our rights as citizens of the United States. I believe the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have laid out a good foundation for our nation. However, these rights will always be filtered through the lenses of my Christian responsibility. In other words, there are times when even the best of ideals can be distorted or misused. Let me give a couple examples.

  • I have the right to worship in the United States, but as a Christian I have a responsibility not to worship a god other than Jesus, or in a manner that breaks any of the moral structures of the Bible. 
  • I think free speech is a good idea in principle. Yet as Christians, we have the responsibility to structure our speech in ways that conform to biblical ideals. This means we cannot, as Christians, exercise an unfettered right to free speech. In addition, we can clearly see how this right has led to the furthering of moral evil in the world: vicious racism, pornography, slander, etc. so even though it’s a right, we recognize that not every exercise of it good in and of itself. 
  • The right to peacefully assemble is important. As a Christian, I have the responsibility not to assemble at a strip club, or a Neo-Nazi rally, or in a chat room that is full of vicious slander and gossip.
  • As a Christian, I simply do not have the right to pursue happiness in any way I want to. I have a responsibility as a Christian to limit the manner in which I pursue happiness. 

There are all kinds of rights not delineated in our foundational documents that are constantly debated. Do I have a right to work? Do I have a right to health care? Do I have a right to education? If you look at how nations compile human rights around the world, the list of rights is long. In every case, my question as a Christian is not so much do I have a right as a US citizen or even simply because I am human, but what is my responsibility as a Christian within the framework of the rights that I have?  

I have to ask even deeper questions.

Is it possible that some things we think of as rights ought not be rights? Is it possible we've not listed rights that we should have listed? Just because we have foundational documents with good rights listed does not mean it's a perfect list or a perfect document. It’s not inspired, revelatory Scripture. As a Christian, I must filter everything through the lenses of actual scripture, and that includes the discussion of my rights as a citizen in the United States

Perhaps that will help you understand why I think it is impossible for me as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven to always be at ease in the empires of Earth, and that includes the United States. There will absolutely be ongoing ways in which my allegiance to Christ clashes with my citizenship on Earth. There is no room for complacency. I can't just accept that something is good and right because it's the law of the land. Christians have never believed that. I can't simply parrot everything a political or religious leader says, because they will absolutely be wrong at times. Christians have always believed that. 

Here's the million-dollar question: How do we live with integrity as citizens of the holy Kingdom of Heaven while living as a citizens of any unholy empire on earth?

I've been thinking about this a lot because of what's happening here in Michigan. There's plenty of unhappiness with the governor's stay-at-home orders, and I get it. But I don't think the response for Christians is as simple as, “I have my rights.”  

Based on what I've already said, for Christians it's never as simple as claiming something as a right since the government has given it to you. It's always filtered through the lenses of Christian responsibility. So this is my question. Whatever happens with the discussion of our rights - and it’s sure to make its way through the courts of the empire - what are the Kingdom responsibilities we as Christians have right now, no matter what situation we are in?

I think our Christian responsibility boils down to this. We need to be a faithful presence. By faithful, I mean consistently and honestly represent the presence of Christ on Earth. The Bible refers to Christians as ambassadors or icons of God. In other words, our presence ought to be representative of the presence of God. So what does that look like?

First let's go with the most basic summary that Jesus gave: Love God and love others as we wish to be loved. In the way that that is phrased in the Hebrew language, it's set up as parallel commands. The two are inseparable. If you love God, you will love others. If you say you love God but hate others, you are a liar. This is often referred to as the Law of Love.

Later in his ministry, Jesus clarified this and told his disciples that they should love others as Christ has loved them. I suspect this is because we can get very confused about loving others as we wish to be loved, because our hearts are dark and broken, and we can begin to think love is expressed in very fallen ways. But we know how Jesus loved us: He gave his life for us. The Bible uses the word agape, which is the idea of this self-sacrificial, self-giving love that is focused on the good of the other. 

So this is the starting point of being a faithful presence. Are we present in such a way that it is clear that we have agape love for the people around us? Is it clear that we are willing to sacrifice, that we are willing to be radically generous, that we are willing to be broken and spilled out like Jesus was for us (to use communion language)?

We can debate about whether the most loving thing to do right now is to continue lockdowns as they are or open things up. I think it's a fair question considering the ripple effect of any decision that is made, and I clarified that earlier. 

But the fundamental issue underlying both of them is the question of love. Are we taking the stance out of fear, out of frustration, out of greed, out of anger? Or have we thoughtfully and prayerfully considered what the best way is for us to show love to our neighbors right now? 

We may even arrive at different conclusions based on where we live and what our circumstances are. I am certain there is room for variation here. But if our conclusion is not founded on and informed by and saturated with Christ-like love, we are never going to be a faithful presence.

Second, we must be lovers of and purveyors of Truth. Jesus said that love for him and love for truth we're deeply intertwined. Jesus described himself as The Truth. We want to be taken seriously when we tell people we know the truth about God. Therefore, we must be committed to the pursuit of and the sharing and promoting of Truth. 

Not gossip. Not rumor. 

It's one thing to ‘speculate about speculation’. That's fair enough. We do it all the time (“Hey, I heard this…”  “Yeah? I heard this…” Looks like it’s actually this….”) I mean, it’s how we learn things a lot of the time: hypothesis, test, conclusion. So that’s one thing.

It's another thing to wildly share anything that could further a narrative we want to be true before we allow for a vetting process to let us know just how firm a foundation we are standing on.

If we make crazy claims about rumors now, we can't expect, when we talk about Jesus, for people to assume anything other than that we're making crazy claims yet again. We insist that we know Jesus is who he said he was because of proven historical claims. If we get wishy-washy on unproven claims when it comes to front page issues, and show ourselves to be easily duped, it's hard for me to envision people taking us seriously when we begin to talk about how much we value truth. 

Third, our words and our attitude matter. Grace and Truth. Grace and Truth. Honestly, I've been discouraged at how combative I've seen Christians getting over secondary issues. 

Does a particular drug work to cure the coronavirus? Well I hope so, but is it really worth yelling at people who disagree and assuming some kind of hyper partisan deviance at work in the speculation over the effectiveness of the drug? 

  • Should Menards be allowed to sell custom paint or sell flowers? I admit, I don't understand why they can’t, but I understand even less how Christians are yelling at each other because they disagree about opening or restricting sales. 
  • Are coronavirus cases being counted correctly? I don't know. Neither do you. I'm baffled at how Christians are getting mad at each other over how to count the virus. 
  • Whose fault is it that states don't have all the equipment that they need? I don't know. Probably everybody's. Maybe nobody’s. One thing I do know. It is stupid for Christians to yell at each other, and get mad, and put their friendships on the line debating this. 
  • Is the WHO a blessing or a problem? I don’t know. Both? But if two Christians disagree, it ought to be a conversational molehill, not a mountain.

These are not gospel issues. This kind of public witness is not painting a compelling picture for Christ or the community of Christians. We are the people who are supposed to be defined by unity, and love, and grace. Instead, we are pulling each other's hair out over issues that ought to simply be discussed together, not used as bludgeoning tools to prove that I'm right and you're wrong. I’m getting worried that, when this is over, those outside the church are going to be even less inclined to hang out with God’s people because they’ve read the Facebook posts of God’s people. 

Fourth, I believe we are faithfully present when we are radically generous. I'm far less interested right now in who deserves help then in who needs help. We Christians ought to want people in need to make their need known to us, so that we can help as we are able. 

Right now, it seems like local government and community resources are able to provide much that is needed. This will almost certainly run out. Are we ready? Are we mentally letting go of all the things we may need to physically let go of soon?  Have we looked Mammon in the face and told it to get behind us? We all, before God, need to survey our areas of responsibility and begin to pray and plan on how to steward that which has been given to us. 

This means, for example, the part of my duty is to look out for my family and my church family. It does not mean, however, that I circle the wagons around my house or my church in such a way that I cannot see and be able to help those in need.  What gets placed on the altar in times like this? 

  • Discretionary money for sure. 
  • The unnecessary but lovely vacation is of far less importance than my now unemployed neighbor’s heating bill.  
  • The unnecessary but much desired addition is of far less importance than my uninsured friend’s hospital bill. 
  • Trading in that old, paid off vehicle that still has some life in it for something nicer but costly is of far less importance than helping a family scrambling for food.  

I’m not saying we can’t do both. Maybe we can. Depending on where you live and what you have, this could easily be a both/and scenario – but it might not be. You have to figure that out, before God, for yourself. But if this kind of time does not compel us to hold what God has given us loosely in our hands, I don’t know what will. 

Fifth, we need to show that we know how to properly honor authority.  So you don't like the restrictions? That's fine. I don't either. What does it look like to honor the authorities who put the restrictions in place? Let’s clarify. 

  • Honor does not demand mindless agreement. You can disagree with someone you honor. You probably should at some point, since no one is perfect. If you always disagree or always agree, it’s probably time to put your Kool-Aid down. 
  • Honor is not the same as having good feelings about someone or something. You don’t have to like people you honor, though I suspect if they are worthy of honor you eventually will. 

Honor has a lot to do with attitude and presentation. We can disagree and criticize and even dislike while having a proper attitude. We don’t mock or demean or defame. Honor is positioning ourselves in such a way that we show that we respect the office of those who God has placed over us. It’s one thing to say, “I disagree with the President or Governor for this reason.” Fair enough. It’s another to call Trump a Cheetoh, or call Whitmer “Whitler.” Come on. We’re better than that. Or at least I thought we were. 

Sixth, I think our faithful presence involves hope and peace. We Christians claim that God gives us a peace that passes understanding. Is that clear to those around us right now? We claim that our hope is not in this world, but it is in Christ. Is that clear to those around us right now? What will bring you the most peace: remembering that Jesus saves, and his grace is sufficient for every circumstance we face, or hearing that we will start phase 1 of reopening the economy? 

Finally, we spread the gospel through our lives and our words. Now is a prime time to talk about Jesus and a kingdom that is not of this world. Now is a great time to talk about why “all of creation groans,” and who will bring the redemption for which it longs, and how we can begin to participate in that redemptive movement already. Now is a great time to talk about a coming New Heaven and New Earth in which we will experience life redeemed and illuminated by the unfiltered glory of God.  

Now is the time to pray “thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” - and then ask God to show us how our faithful presence can usher in even the smallest glimpse of the future glorious kingdom. 


Well said. 

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