Meeting Together or Not

Church sanctuaries remain empty after ten weeks of restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. In some places, drive-in church services are happening, just like when I was a kid and went to Herbie the Love Bug at the drive-in movie theater. But where I live, we are still in the “red” zone, which does not mean we are within twenty yards of the endzone. For us, the endzone seems a long way off. As long as we are in the red zone, we cannot meet together for worship.

I’m concerned about my fellow Christians. It seems some are becoming discontent, grumbling and complaining about the rules of isolation. In Pennsylvania Dutch, we call that being gretzy. I understand and have been a little gretzy myself. I don’t agree with the arbitrary nature of closing businesses and organizations, and the fear being propagated. But this week I was convicted about my attitude.

There are a handful of churches who are meeting despite the governor’s orders. The primary reason given for violating the order is that the church is “commanded to meet together by God.” They cite Hebrews 10:25, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” The problem is context, which indicates that the church was not forbidden to meet, but that some members were choosing not to meet.

This section of Hebrews 10 is really about encouraging one another. When the book of Hebrews was written, that would have been difficult to do without meeting in person. But today it is fairly easy to encourage someone via a phone call, a video chat, a Zoom meeting, or even good, old-fashioned snail mail. Sure, meeting together, being face-to-face, offering a hug of encouragement would be preferable. But in the age in which we live, there are alternatives. This exhortation is about being committed and intentional in encouraging the members of their church family.

And how do these churches balance this verse with the whole of Scripture? Where does obeying civil authority come in? “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1) They would counter with Acts 5:29, “…we must obey God rather than man.” But again, the context of that statement was the apostles being told they could not preach in the name of Jesus. We are not being told that. Preaching the Gospel, witnessing, praying, Bible study, none of it has been prohibited by our government. And then there is the rest of Scripture – patiently enduring suffering (2 Corinthians 1:6), loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, being a light, rejoicing when persecuted (Matthew 5). Above all things, Christians are to be known for their love, which does not insist on its own way (John 13, Colossians 3, & 1 Corinthians 13). You would have to do some Simone Biles-level gymnastics to balance all of Scripture against a verse or two taken out of context.

So, what about meeting for worship? Is the point of a worship service to gather people together or to worship God? There is something necessary about corporate worship which builds up the body of Christ. And we shouldn’t neglect it when we can be together. But it isn’t necessary to be together physically to worship God. Jesus told the Samaritan woman that true worship is not about where it takes place, but the heart of the worshipper. Right worship of God is done in spirit and in truth. (John 4)

If we are gathering because we “need to get back to church,” are we making worship about us? If our source of comfort and contentment comes from meeting together, have we made meeting together an idol?

I’m going to take that even a step further. If we are willing to violate an order because we want so much to have something that we don’t have, isn’t that the very definition of coveting? Are we fueling discontentment in our lives by longing for what was and not being content with what is? Now we’ve got coveting, discontentment, and idol worship. They don’t belong in the life of a Christian. They need to be repented of and forsaken, not fed and nurtured.

What does God really want from his church? “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Right now we can accomplish those things by waiting patiently for the time we can meet together for worship. We find much more in Scripture about waiting, patience, and longsuffering than about defying the government. I have not cultivated longsuffering in my life, proven by my reaction when the light turns green and the person in front of me doesn’t hit the gas.

COVID-19 and the subsequent shutdown did not happen outside of God’s sovereignty and goodness. Individual churches may close permanently, but the Church, the Bride of Christ, will not. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

Let us redeem this time of waiting. Let’s learn new ways of communicating and “meeting together.” And, most importantly, let us reflect Jesus to a fearful, impatient world.

Uncertainty

I’ve sat down at my computer several times today to write this blog post. If I had a typewriter, there would be a lot of crumpled pages in and around the trash can. I thought I knew what I wanted to write, but each idea fell short. What would be best for this week? A funny anecdote? A serious reflection? A hopeful exhortation? Nothing felt right. Maybe I should just write what I’m feeling.

We are all going through a strange time in our history. Most of us haven’t experienced anything like this before. I don’t really know what I’m feeling. It isn’t fear. It isn’t worry. It definitely isn’t hopelessness. I think it’s uncertainty. I like having all my ducks in a row, and I don’t know how this pandemic will play out. I’ve read so many contrary opinions from the “experts.” But the truth is, no one knows.

In the last two weeks, three close friends have lost loved ones. Two more are not expected to live through the week (none are virus-related). Their families can’t hold services for them now and can’t have visitors. I’m a hugger. Everything in me wants to hug my friends or at least be by their side. But I can’t get within six feet of them. My only choice is to turn hugs into words, which for me right now, fails to express my love and desire to comfort them.

Today has been especially uncertain. My husband left for work this morning where he will be helping in the ICU instead of his normal job in the OR. It left me feeling a little nervous. Then I got word this afternoon that one of our family members has tested positive for COVID-19. Those feelings of uncertainty mounted. How will these things work out? Sometimes I want God to pull back the curtain and show me the plan, especially the ending. But where would my faith be? It would be in what I can see and not in the God who holds it all together.

In these uncertain times, I need to ask myself, “Do I really trust God for all things?” Usually I can figure out how things are going to go. But these last few years have taught me that life can change on a dime. I have learned to trust God with every little thing so when the big things come, it is second nature. I heard Veirdre Jackson say at a conference recently that she could run in the thin air of the mountains because she trained hard in the valley. The air is feeling thin right now. It’s hard to take a deep breath. But, thankfully, I have had a lot of time training in valleys. I know where my hope lies and who holds the future. If this is more of a training valley for you, take one step at a time and trust God for the next.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV)

Not My First Pandemic Rodeo

It occurred to me today that this is not the first time I have been isolated at home due to a world-wide health crisis. In 1977, I got the flu. At that time, it was called the A1 Asian Flu, later called the Russian Flu. It almost exclusively affected young people under age 23. Because of a similar flu outbreak in the 1950s, most adults were immune to it (let that be encouraging to y’all right now). My doctor told me I was the second person in the US to get it and had the worst case. I’ve always had a competitive nature.

I was 13 years old, starting eighth grade, when I got sick in the fall of 1977. I missed about two months of school prior to Christmas break. In January 1978, I was feeling better, except for severe pain in my back. After a hospitalization and more testing, doctors discovered the virus seemed to have eaten away the discs in my thoracic spine. They felt that immobilizing my spine would allow the discs to heal.

In February 1978, I entered the hospital to have a body cast applied. Really, it wasn’t a full body cast, it was a body jacket. It started with a large neck brace, extending down onto my chest and covered with a plaster cast. The cast was applied from my neck to my hips, hence, “body jacket.” A very nice nurse washed me up, spending a good amount of time using warm water to gently remove bits of plaster from parts of my body that didn’t need it. I stayed in the hospital for a week under a heat lamp to dry the plaster. I could bend at the hips, but not well. My arms were free. I could move them but not lift them completely over my head. This made washing my hair tricky, but once at home, I figured out a pretty efficient system using the kitchen sink sprayer.

Since I had already missed so much school time and was supposed to move as little as possible, I went on homebound studies. I could have visitors, but I couldn’t play. In fact, I got in trouble one day when my Spanish teacher arrived and saw me playing catch with my sister. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but everyone else did (except my sister—bless her heart for taking me outside to do something).

I spent most of my days watching soap operas. Because my cast damaged the furniture, there was one chair I was allowed to sit in. Sleeping was tough. The cast would pop up in the front and dig into my back. Of course, I couldn’t shower. And I rarely left the house because people stared. It was not a good time.

May 4, 1978 finally arrived—cast removal day. I was so excited and terrified. Cutting off a cast that is around one’s neck is scary. Once it was off, I felt so free and light, except my head, which seemed to weigh about 50 pounds! My neck muscles had atrophied over four months of no use. I actually had to use my hands to hold my head up. But my time in isolation was over.

I lost a year of school, being with friends, and playing outside—all without internet or cell phone, talk about isolation. We can do this. Hold your heads up, friends. This time of world-wide pandemic and isolation will be over soon.

“But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the one who lifts my head.” Psalm 3:3 NASB