Pastor’s Friday Comments (12.11.20)

Let’s begin with the premise that the leaders of all Christian churches want to do the right thing. They want to serve God and serve humanity as best they can, using whatever resources are at their disposal. We may vary greatly in the particular goals we have in mind; we may articulate different doctrines; we certainly will express our faith through worship in wildly different ways, but all of us, I believe, are sincere in wanting to please God in everything we do.

And for the most part it is unseemly, if not unchristian, to criticize each other. The people around us should see our love for one another and the things on which we agree rather than focusing on the things that separate us. Furthermore, since we’re not in anyone else’s place, with their unique challenges and opportunities, we don’t have much to go on even if we were inclined to criticize.

However – and it is a very important “however” – on rare occasions the practices of one congregation or denomination so impact other churches, the surrounding community, and the cause of Christ in the world, that it is difficult to remain silent. The way we practice our faith in the midst of a pandemic is one of those occasions.

Credible health experts are virtually unanimous regarding the measures that we all must take in order to mitigate risk, avoid endangering the lives of others, and move us beyond the current health crisis that has disrupted all of our lives, injured our economy severely, and, most importantly, has caused the deaths of over 1.5 million people worldwide.

It is beyond absurd that I should even have to repeat what those measures are, but given the number of people who are ignoring them, they bear repeating. Avoid crowds, especially indoors. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. As much as possible, avoid close contact with anyone with whom you don’t live. 

Given those recommended measures, it is impossible to conduct indoor worship services without significant risk. 

Some churches that feel it is important to maintain congregational services indoors are taking precautions: social distancing, wearing masks, no singing, limited length of service. They have taken the position that, given the extraordinary precautions they are taking, indoor worship is worth the risk. Considering the problem of recirculating air, the extreme difficulty of adequate social distancing in most sanctuaries, the advanced average age of most congregants, and the length of exposure, this balancing act may involve a high degree of wishful thinking, but each congregation has to make its own decisions.

Other churches, however, have taken a much more extreme approach. They are conducting ecclesiastical business as usual: indoor services of indeterminate length, full-throated congregational and choral singing without masks, and, in some cases, no regard for social distancing. And now, because the Supreme Court has ruled that local authorities may not restrict religious gatherings, they are not inhibited by any legislative decisions from doing what they please.  In other words, they are free to do everything that health experts warn we should not do if we are ever to move beyond this crisis. (We’re all praying for an effective vaccine, universally distributed, but before its effects are seen, many more people will be sick, and perhaps a million more will die if we don’t change our behavior.) 

Experts say that almost all Covid infections are occuring in five places: restaurants, bars, cafes, hotels, and – you guessed it – houses of worship.

This is the point at which I don’t think we can remain silent and uncritical. I know that when your friends, relatives, and neighbors brag about the uninhibited way that they are worshiping right now, your natural tendency, because you are loving, polite people, is to smile and nod and not make any comment. I’m not sure that’s good enough anymore. The reckless disregard for the safety of others and the damage they are doing to the cause of Christ by the way they are perceived by society is too great to go unchallenged.

It is appropriate for your blood to boil when you see hundreds of young people gathered on a beach or in a club without masks. You know that’s reckless behavior. Why is it any less reckless just because the music in the background happens to be sacred and the message being spread is of love and faith? It isn’t loving to engage in behavior that can hurt others. It isn’t being faithful to put your own life at risk, expecting God to protect you from infection. If it disturbs you to see secular scenes of such folly, don’t you think it might damage the reputation of the Church for others to see us in equivalent situations?

And as for those who still think all of this is a hoax, I don’t know what to do except show them the videos of people taking their final breaths in a Covid ward who joined them in that delusion.

I’ve always said you need to watch out for anyone who comes to you “in Christian love,” because they’re probably about to hit you over the head with something, but this is a time when going to our brothers and sisters in Christian love is not just allowed; I think it’s compulsory. Because we live in a country of great religious freedom, we can’t make anyone do anything. But we can certainly use whatever powers of persuasion we have at our disposal. Use yours to convince your friends they’re making a mistake if they are placing their right to worship as they please above another person’s right to breathe.