Dear Sisters and Brothers,
As you may be aware, Governor Little announced Thursday that the State of Idaho would be moving forward in lifting some of the restrictions that have been put into place in response to the coronavirus outbreak. This includes allowing houses of worship to begin meeting again, as long as they observe certain protocols. We have been watching the situation closely, and have decided that we will try to gather this Sunday, and see if we can have some time together, even within the constraints of those protocols.
As your pastor, I wanted to take this opportunity to speak about a few things that have occupied my mind and my heart as we’ve moved through this situation. I have to say, I’ve been conflicted about how best to respond to this situation. The reality is that this virus has exposed some of the fractures in our civic life, and we in the church are not immune to those fault-lines. The health of our most vulnerable should be of utmost importance, but as we’ve gone deeper into our quarantine, we’ve begun to see that there are certain things we need for a full and harmonious life that have been sidelined in the interest of public health. Personally, I’ve had to mourn from a distance the loss of my aunt, who passed alone in a nursing home. So I understand the conflict we are all experiencing—the tension between needing to be isolated and needing to be together. I also have friends who are facing extreme financial hardship, their small business shut down, considered “non-essential” while their bills keep coming. My heart is torn for them. What to do is not always clear.
There are those who would like to paint this situation in binaries—as the classic “either/or” dilemma. Either we continue to isolate ourselves, and sacrifice those most economically vulnerable, or we “open the economy” and sacrifice those most physically vulnerable. Each pulls strongly against the other. But the reality is that the situation is not so neat or clear-cut. Social distancing will not fully protect us from a virus we have no immunity to—it will only delay the inevitable. There is profound value to that delay; if we can develop effective treatments, we may alleviate some suffering and even death by slowing down the rate of infection. But even though isolation is the best tool we have right now, and I fully support our health professionals and scientists who encourage it, it’s not a cure-all or perfect solution. We should also take a hard look at our motives for “reopening,” too. Just like physical distancing is not a cure-all in response to this disease, reopening our businesses is not a cure-all for the problems our society faces. The world we are returning to is not the same one we left. Sure, there will be some positive effect, but we’ve already seen numerous instances of the rich getting richer, and the poor being forgotten. Due to the systemic nature of economic injustice in our country, there’s no indication that the most economically vulnerable will be protected when we move toward “normal” again.
The situation is complex—far messier than the media portrays it. Because pandemics are rare things, we aren’t prepared for them, and we don’t always know how to react. There are a great deal of conflicting impulses, and there’s the temptation at all levels to demonize those we disagree with. The angry rhetoric and finger-pointing from those who should be leading with unity is disheartening. And nearest my heart, it saddens me when we as Christians crawl into the mud with them, lining up to lay blame and cast accusations. We, who are to be a witness to Christ’s love, and ambassadors of peace and reconciliation, end up being led by the powers of this world into the divisive and confrontational mess that is our public sphere these days. The one pure thing we can bring to heal the brokenness of our society—the reconciling love of Christ—is forgotten in the rush to support this agenda or that ideology.
As in all things, we need to look to our motives. Why do we do what we do? And as the people of God, we should have a good response to that question. So I want to be clear: my decision as pastor to support our gathering this Sunday has nothing to do with reopening the economy. Our meeting together will have almost no effect on the general economy anyway. And I do not think we will be anywhere near “normal” for quite some time. I feel we need to continue to take seriously the risks of physical contact. As of today, there is no sure-fire way to protect ourselves from infection except eliminating physical contact, and while that is not sustainable long-term, for the time being we still need to follow the protocols that are meant to protect those most at risk. So please do not think we as leaders in the church are being dismissive of the risks—personally, I would strongly encourage anyone who is particularly vulnerable to continue to self-isolate. I would much rather see you in a few weeks or months than to risk your health or life. So, this is going to make it impossible to worship like we did just a couple months ago. We are not returning to what we once had, not for quite some time at least. So why are we doing what we do?
As you might imagine, we all will have a different answer to that question. Some will choose to stay home for the foreseeable future, protecting themselves even though that protection comes at a cost. Some will step out their front doors, feeling ready to reengage on whatever level seems appropriate, hopefully understanding the risks to themselves and others. Some—as far as our gathering is concerned—feel that anything short of full fellowship is a compromise they are unwilling to make, and so will choose to wait until such a time as we can hug again, and we can sit close to sisters and brothers. And there will be a lot of less reasonable reasons for doing what we end up doing, too. We’ll go with our gut on a lot of things, even if we don’t have clear reasons for doing so. The complexity of this situation seems tailor-made for making best guesses. And as people saved by grace, we will need to have a lot of grace with each other. While the world degenerates into a maelstrom of angry accusations and demonizing the other, we will hold those we love in our hearts, we will hold them gently and with compassion, even if we do not agree. In this way, we will be shining a light in a darkening world.
My reason for supporting our coming together is this: I think it is important for us to gather around God’s word. It is the one thing that we can do and still protect those that need protection. Paul, when he talks to the Corinthian church about orderly worship in 1 Corinthians 14, talks about several elements of worship, some we can safely and easily do, others that we may have to pass on for the time being. We can come together to pray, we can come together to read the Word, and we can come together to reflect on that message that God has given us. Anything we can do while still limiting our physical contact, we will try to do. And we need to do it. We are not meant to be isolated from our Christian family. So as long as we can do it safely, we will try to do it. But if we find we cannot moderate the risks, we may have to reevaluate.
This is a work in progress, so there will be some adjustment necessary from time to time, so keep listening closely, and have some patience. As we’ve noted, we will try to limit our physical contact, which will feel a little strange. And we will not be able to do the things that may transmit the virus, like sharing in communion or passing offering plates. We won’t be able to see each other’s smiles behind the masks. But I trust we will feel each other’s spirit, and will sense the love we have for each other, love that bridges any distance. I have a great deal of faith in you, that you will make decisions for the good of others. I believe that we are a people who are shaped by the self-giving, agape love that Jesus has for us, and that when we are given the chance, we will choose what is best for our sisters and brothers. We do not need someone (like a governor, or a president, or even a pastor) to tell us what we need to do, we know--as mature believers—what we need to do. It will be different for each of us, because we all face different circumstances, but our decisions will be ultimately shaped by love.
I say this as both an affirmation, and a challenge. Like all of us, I myself have found my own decision-making process unduly influenced by worldly concerns at times, and for this I ask your forgiveness. The good and loving thing isn’t always as clear as we would like it to be, and in the echo-chamber of competing ideologies, sometimes we’re not as Christ-like as we would want to be. Again, another reason to be together, so we can “spur each other on to love and and good deeds,” as the author to the Hebrews tells us. But I do believe we are both called to love, and equipped to love. So we have the Spirit and the strength to chart a different course, through all the confusion and conflicting impulses. We are the Children of God, and we are a light for the world, and we will show our loved ones, and our neighbors, and our city and state, and perhaps even the nation and the world, what being a disciple of Jesus really looks like. This Sunday, it may look like a simple, understated and careful gathering—a gathering in which we worship in spirit and in truth even across the distance that separates us. But in the weeks and months to come, it will take on new forms, and new urgency. And we will find ways to love and illuminate together. Why do we do what we do? Because Jesus calls us to it.
In the name of the One who makes us one, Jesus Christ,