An Ordinary Sunday?
April 22, 2020
To all the saints at Christ the King,
Since so many have to worship from home right now, I thought I would write up for you what your experience would look like if you were worshiping in-person with us at this time. There is no way to know for certain how long these precautions will be necessary, so I thought this would be a good way of familiarizing everyone with the in-person experience that we are currently offering (remember: religious gatherings of up to 50 remain legal in CT), as it may be our regular practice for a time...
You pull into the church parking lot a few minutes before service, thankful that somehow nothing came up to delay you this morning. The parking lot has about a third of the cars it would normally have. Though it still feels awkward and makes you a little self-conscious, you pull your facemask into place and make sure it’s properly secured. “I have to remember not to mess with it once it’s on – that would defeat the purpose,” you think.
Swinging your legs out of your car, you walk toward the church building. It’s sunny, but cold. Despite the cold, one of the sanctuary doors is propped open, so you won’t have to touch the handle and worry about who might have touched it last.
As your eyes adjust to the light in the narthex, you are greeted by two members, also wearing masks. You smile under your mask and make a rather awkward wave, still not sure how to properly greet people from six feet away. They chuckle and say, “Good morning and welcome!” as you grab a full-text bulletin that has been laid out in a spaced row so that you only need to touch your own. There is a large pump bottle of hand sanitizer there, and even though you washed your hands right before you left home, you use a bit of it. Partly to be extra sure, partly so anyone watching will see that your hands are clean. You decide not to grab a pair of nitrile gloves from the box, but they are there if you did want them, which somehow feels assuring.
Because the service hasn’t started yet, you say a few “good mornings,” and give a few more waves as you find a place that is tucked away from everyone else who is there. Looks like 30 or so people. It’s odd because it feels both crowded and empty. On the one hand, the sanctuary can seat over 200 pretty easily. Still, it feels a little like you are getting away with something… this is the most people you have been near in a week.
The pews still look a little funny – the hymnals, bibles, pew cards, and pencils are all gone (too hard to keep disinfected), but 54 years of sunshine has left a perfect outline of them on the finish of the pews: a bittersweet reminder of what you used to take for granted and hope can someday return. They are absent, but they left their mark.
There is a bottle of hand sanitizer right next to you, but you just sanitized in the narthex and you haven’t touched anything since, so that wouldn’t make sense. The pew still smells like disinfectant, which makes sense since it was wiped down just 15 minutes ago.
It’s almost exactly 9:30 and now the pastor is starting the live feed on the A/V equipment that sits on a card table between the front pew and the lectern. He turns on the video camera which records a backup if the live feed has any difficulty. It occurs to you to say a quick prayer of thanks for the technology that makes this possible. Fifteen years ago, live-streaming would not have been an option and those who must continue to stay home for health and safety reasons would be even more separated from their church and worship. Pastor said last week that if online views are counted, church attendance is actually up during the virus. Isn’t that something? The pastor exits and the bells begin to ring…
Several logistics announcements finally give way to the prelude, that chance to take a deep breath and focus on God’s presence here, even at this time and in these circumstances. A chance to pray for all the people that would normally be sitting next to you or in front of you who have stayed home because they are at greater risk, or in some cases because they are working to fight the virus, or to provide essential goods and services in the middle of it.
The service begins, and since everyone is situated now and no closer than 6 feet (actually, it’s more like 10 in your case), you can carefully pull down your mask, which makes it easier to speak the responses, sing the ordinaries, and even just to breathe. Breathe in the certainty of God’s gifts, breathe in thankfulness that He is still with us, even if some of us are watching through that tiny webcam on a tripod in front of the lectern. The familiar rhythm of the liturgy is so comforting, the Scriptures both challenging and assuring… partly because you know that these words have stood the test of time. God was using them to feed His people before this virus and, unless he returns first, he will be using them to feed people after this virus has passed – or at least after it doesn’t dominate everyday life like it does right now.
The Passing of the Peace is a noticeable difference: no hugs, no handshakes. You stay in your place and wave and speak "Peace be with you." Some members do the American Sign Language for "Peace of Christ" which Pastor taught at the last Children's Message before that, too, had to be dropped from the service. It's too hard to keep little ones from touching one another, and everything else for that matter. At least when we pass the peace this way, and with everyone spaced throughout the sanctuary, you can pass the peace with nearly everyone in the sanctuary.
Communion is hard, but such a blessing. Why are hard times so frequently the most blessed? True, there are no ushers to dismiss you and you have to use the sanitizer again to put your mask in place as you walk up; yes, you have to remember to keep six feet away from the next household at the rail (handy that the kneelers are almost exactly six feet – it makes it easy to estimate); yes, it’s hard to remember not to touch the rail at all; yes, the pastor has to wear nitrile gloves to distribute the host and has put on a mask since he will be closer than six feet when he distributes the host and the cups; yes, the wine is only available as individual cups spaced out on twice as many trays as usual, so you can take yours without touching any other… but despite all of those things, this is still Jesus’ body and blood, given for you for the forgiveness of sins. So many cannot receive it in person right now. So many times, you were distracted when you received it. You’re not distracted right now. All those precautions have brought a high level of focus. And still they seem… well, small things, just a mild accommodation if they mean you can still have this means of grace and unity with Christ and His church.
After returning to your pew and sanitizing again, the service comes to a quick close. The mask will have to go back on for dismissal – carefully, to prevent touching your face – and the conversations as you leave, maintaining 6 feet of distance, will still be a bit awkward. But you’ve been able to worship – a freedom and a gift you have never appreciated more than you do right now. Maybe it will only look like this for another week or two. Maybe it will be much longer. But the church has withstood much more than this in its 2000-year history, the precautions are a way to show love for vulnerable neighbors, and most importantly: Christ is still with you, with the whole church, facing this challenge with the “joy inexpressible” that First Peter referenced in today’s Epistle reading.
The whole world may have changed, but Christ’s truth has not. And what better place to be reminded of that than in His house, even if we have to take some additional precautions to make it wiser? And once again you give thanks for the saints that couldn’t be here in person today, but through the gift of technology are able to stay connected… One day, one joyous day, this shall all be a memory. But as you get back in your car, you say a quick prayer that you will never forget to value gathering in church as much as you do right now. You’re already looking forward to next week…
With my prayers that you will all continue to be well in body, mind, and spirit,
Pastor Rob Morris
Public Health and the Essential Nature of Worship
April 4, 2020
To all the saints at Christ the King,
This is not a very practical letter. As such I am posting it here rather than distributing it through our regular means. It shares some thoughts I have about how our nations’ churches have responded to the current CoVid19 crisis.
Many church leaders have argued that national, state, or local orders to close are to be obeyed during this time of public health crisis. In fact, many have argued that churches should be at the forefront of willingness to close their activities (a well-reasoned and thoughtful example is found here https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/26/obedience-to-god-and-love-of-neighbor-in-the-face-of-a-coronavirus-a-christians-mandate).
Most of these arguments, like the one linked above, boil down to two main lines of thought:
1) Love for Neighbor - As Christians, we are called to love our neighbor. Loving our neighbor requires preserving and promoting public health. Continuing to gather in worship would risk our neighbors’ well-being by risking public health. Therefore, loving our neighbor requires we not meet publicly. This is the first line of thought.
2) Submission to Earthly Authority - As Christians, we are called to submit to the governing authorities unless their commands directly contradict God’s. The governing authorities are asking churches to close because of public health, not because of opposition to the Gospel of Christ. The governing authorities are functioning within their God-given authority when they instruct churches to close. Therefore, submission to governing authorities requires we not meet publicly. This is the second line of thought.
I find both of these streams of logic compelling, Biblically-based, and loving. I completely understand why any given church body or church leader might find them so and follow their implications.
However, I do not agree with them, nor do I intend to follow their implications. Though I am probably punching above my weight class, let me attempt to explain why…
The Public Health Assumptions – I am frankly surprised how quickly and consistently many people have equated “Virus-Free” with “Healthy”. Allow me a hypothetical… Imagine a country that, because of the oncoming spread of the virus, successfully managed to close every citizen in a cell, delivering hygienically-prepared food and providing ample TV and streaming services to each. Each citizen, thus provided for, is forbidden from leaving their cell. The nation would be entirely virus-free. Would it be healthy?
Notice that I am not even delving into the economic question, only one of quality of life versus quantity of life. As a Pastor, I am frequently called on to help provide counsel into decisions where one option might prolong life while severely inhibiting it, while another option might allow a less-inhibited life which will likely be much shorter. These are challenging questions. Many factors must be taken into consideration. The decisions are usually marinated in tears and baked in an oven of significant prayer and counsel.
When did that conversation happen in regards to CoViD19? I am not denying that it is a virus that is unprecedented in living history. But when did we weigh the potential public health cost of the virus against the potential public health cost of our reaction to it? (Again, I am entirely avoiding the economic discussion, which has a legitimate place, too).
I think there is a meaningful discussion to be had regarding “Public Health” in a time of widespread illness. I think compelling cases can be made in different directions. A case can be made that every precaution is good, no matter the ancillary costs. But I also think that a case can be made that protecting the most vulnerable by taking away what they most value is not a good trade. I am reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) line from Vietnam: “We had to destroy the village to save it.”
Serving public health in love is absolutely our call as Christians and as Christ’s Church. But I don’t think that decision is as simple as some have portrayed it to be.
Free Exercise of Religion – Which brings me to my second concern. In America, we are guaranteed that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. I know that we have shades of flexibility in times of emergency. I also appreciate the distinction between prohibiting the content of a proclamation, and prohibiting the format or location of that proclamation. If I try to lead worship in the center of a busy Interstate, it isn’t persecution if I am told to cease and desist. Such an order would not violate my constitutional rights.
But even acknowledging that… the assurance isn’t “no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion…unless it’s for a really good reason.” I agree with much of the reasoning that would cause government officials to urge churches to close. They are the same reasons all public gatherings are closing.
Except not all public gatherings ARE closing. People are still entering stores and pharmacies; people are still entering some factories and nearly all distribution centers. I agree with these exceptions – because these are necessary and essential activities. And I am deeply blessed and thankful that my state has deemed religious services to be essential and has only required a 50-person limit and all CDC guidelines to be followed.
But that colors the discussion, doesn’t it? The government in some places has decided that religious services are an essential activity and in other places the government has decided that religious services are not essential. This isn’t just a public health question (a debate of its own), but has now become a question of whether the government considers religious services essential.
Even though I am thankful that my own state’s decision aligns with my beliefs, I will be honest: I don’t want the government to be in the business of telling churches (or other assemblies of worship) whether or not their activities are essential.
Even going back to the Interstate church example – to be told we must move to a different location is not the same as being told we are not allowed to meet at all. Similarly, to be told what precautions we must take if we meet is not the same thing as being told we are not allowed to meet at all.
When, as some state and local governments have done, officials tell a church to close because of CoViD19, the full implication is this: “You cannot freely exercise your religion because your activity is not essential and is a threat to public health.”
I don’t think that either love for neighbor nor proper submission to authority requires that I or any other Pastor or church leader assent to that statement.
I believe that in Christian love and freedom, any individual church or church body can make that decision, but I also hope to soon write about what I believe other healthy alternatives may be.
With thanks for God’s continual love and care,
Pastor Rob Morris
Pastor Rob Morris is celebrating his eighth year of serving at Christ the King Lutheran Church. He was ordained into the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod after a colloquy process that involved one semester of classwork at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana and a supervised vicarage here at Christ the King. His previous training included both a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Biblical Languages from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in S. Hamilton, MA, where he also served as a Teacher’s Assistant leading classwork for both the Greek and Hebrew departments.
Before his call to Christ the King, Pastor Morris served as a full-time staff member at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Topsfield, MA, focusing on both the youth and worship ministries. Going even further back, Pastor Rob’s background was in software sales and his undergraduate work was in business and organizational behavior.
Pastor Morris is joyfully married to his high school sweetheart, Christy, and July 2019 marks their 17th wedding anniversary. They have been entrusted with two wonderful boys: Elijah, 13, and Isaiah, 10. As a family, they love to hike, bike, kayak, explore, read, and play music together.
In his free time, Pastor Morris loves reading, playing music on a growing number of instruments, biking, camping, woodworking, and working on old trucks – currently an old Ford and an even older Studebaker.