What does Christ do with the glory of God?
Ollie tells us how beautiful we are in the eyes of Jesus.
On Sunday March 15th only 12 people showed up to worship. The entire nation on that date reported 1,237 new cases of COVID-19 and Wahkiakum County had no reported cases, but most of the church voted with their feet to isolate themselves. The next Sunday we posted the first on-line message, and the following day, Monday March 23, Governor Inslee issued his stay-at-home order, which effectively ended our gathering together to worship. On the day the Governor issued his order, there were 10,934 new cases. 59 days later, May 13th, there were 20,869 new cases. Thankfully those new cases, though roughly double the number per day that were reported when the stay-at-home order was issued, represent a drop from the peak. March 30th and the surrounding days we had roughly this rate of transmission. So, we are pretty close to the numbers we had just a couple weeks after we stopped holding services.
Wahkiakum County has been moved to Phase 2 of reopening business. Our church gatherings are limited to Drive-In Church, which means that if I were to set up a FM transmitter in the parking lot, we could have worship services as long as you stayed in your cars, kept the doors closed and windows rolled up and listened to your radio. No bulletins or other worship materials could be distributed. No communion or other food and drink may be served. So, we have not explored doing this style of worship. Phase 3, which I am certain our County Health Officer will apply for in three weeks, would mean that we could return to worship services inside the church, but with many restrictions. Social distancing will be required even after we return to the sanctuary.
When will we be able to worship in-person together again? There are two answers to that. The first is, whatever date we enter Phase 3. Under the law, we will be free to worship on that date, but the second answer to the question, the realistic answer is, “Whenever you are ready to return to worship after we enter Phase 3." I notice in all the numbers above that you chose to stay home when there were 1,200 new cases per day. We will be fortunate if there are ten times that number on the day we enter Phase 3, but that would require the numbers to continue falling, and virtually all the scientists concur that with the easing of stay-at-home orders we will see an increase in new infections.
This Covid epidemic has been a test of our faith. By that I mean that we have had to exercise our faith in all the decisions we have made over the last two months. Many were exercising their faith before the law came along. Out of love for the neighbors we chose to stay home, following Christ’s many admonitions to place the needs of others above our own desires. The law came along under our government and then ordered us to do what we had already done out of love. The law will eventually release us, but we need to be in prayer and discussion with one another about how we can faithfully return to worship. The law didn’t order you to stay home in the first place, your Christian love did, and the law won’t order you back to worship; that too will be guided by your faith.
As we begin to ask God and one another how we can faithfully return to worship, here are a few concerns that have occupied my thoughts and conversations with other clergy and a few of you.
If we don’t return to worship, the church will fall apart, die, or close the doors. I have heard all three of these fears. The last numbers circulated to council show that we are about $3800 behind budget through April. I don’t have 2019’s YTD through April, but that seems about normal. We always enter Summer a little behind budget. You have been faithful about supporting our ministry so far, and money was not the determining factor in staying at home in the first place, so it shouldn’t determine when we return. If you are worried about money, consider in your calculus what will be the financial cost of losing faithful givers if we return too early? The deaths of even a few of our faithful givers could have a much bigger impact on our budget than stay-at-home has.
Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church is the place where the Skagit Valley Chorale held their rehearsal on March 10. For reference, there were 290 cases reported by the nation that day. Some of those cases were down in Seattle, but this was Mount Vernon (where my wife Carla works). The county had no reported cases. Sixty choir members attended the rehearsal. They refrained from hugging, they had sanitizer, and they distanced. Three weeks later 45 had Covid, 3 were hospitalized and 2 were dead. Little Mount Vernon Presbyterian made the NY Times, the LA Times and all the papers in between. It wasn’t their choir, but the pictures and name of the church made the papers nonetheless. The loss of life is damage enough, but consider what the community would say if we became a hotspot. Will people join or support the church that became the Covid congregation? The church will not die, fall apart, or close the doors because we continue to shelter in place.
If we don’t gather for worship, people will think that we are weak, afraid, or faithless. I have faith in Jesus. He guides my decisions, my hands and feet. His Word reveals to me how to be fully human and his own child. But, I am also mindful not to tempt him or test him. I don’t handle snakes and drink poison just to see if he will save me from my own foolishness. Staying home for me is not a statement of fear or failing to have faith, but is, instead, the very exercise of my faith. I love my neighbors and I love our church. Right now that love and concern for your lives are the reason for staying at home. There are always unbelievers who mock us and bait us by saying we don’t really believe. Imagine if we became a hotspot what those same people will say, “They only got back to worship because they were worried about the offering plate.” “Where was their God when the virus attacked their congregation.” “Those selfish fools just had to get back together and have now put all of us at risk.” You and I know these will be the first things said. Those who hate us don’t need an excuse to criticize us and will do so no matter what we choose to do. I will not make my faith decisions based on the fear of what the faithless say. Faith asks what Jesus will say.
I began this letter with a bunch of numbers. The numbers I didn’t provide were the charts from the last time this state was part of a world-wide epidemic. When the Spanish Flu hit this area in 1918 we weren’t so lucky here in the lower Columbia. There were a lot of lumber camps back then and a couple of military installations. Because there were a lot of people living and working side by side around here, the virus spread quickly and the death numbers were high. It has happened here before. It can happen here again because we are dealing with a virus. The virus doesn’t care which political party you support. It doesn’t care if you are a good Christian. It doesn’t care if you are bored or feeling confined. It doesn’t care if you are under financial stress. It doesn’t care if you used mask, gloves, and sanitizer 60 days in a row and only “forgot” your mask this one time. It only cares about spreading itself to the next host. When we did this 100 years ago, it was not the first wave of the Spanish Flu that was the deadliest, that distinction fell to the second wave that rose after people stopped social distancing.
The decisions we make over the next few weeks will have consequences and the virus will determine what those consequences are. Pray for wisdom for our little flock. I love you all and would be gutted if I had to bury even one of you due to moving to worship too early. The council and I need your prayers as we consider how to balance safety with speed. When I speak of time, I always remember that Jesus uses two different words for time. There is chronos, which is the time of our seasons, calendars, days and clocks. There is also kairos, which is a period or season, a moment of indeterminate time in which an event of significance happens. Kairos is the word used to describe the “right time,” of Romans 5:6 “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” The opportunity for Christ to die for us, the right time, was while we were helpless and couldn’t do anything to save ourselves. Chronos and the law will soon tell us that we can gather together again. Pray that the Spirit will lead us to know when the kairos for gathering has come.
May 15, 2020
Faith is a journey, but one which scripture tells us is not undertaken alone. We seek Jesus through Word and sacrament as a community because we believe the Holy Spirit has gathered us together to worship, learn, and love one another to the glory of God.
Pastor Jeff is willing to meet with you for spiritual counselling, Call 360/631-4707 to schedule a visit.