Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Are Churches Essential?

There is a debate going on among American Christians about whether or not churches are “essential.” It was prompted by the president’s announcement over Memorial Day weekend that churches were indeed essential and should be allowed to open their doors for physical in-person worship services in all fifty states “this weekend.”

Then the president promptly went to Virginia to play golf on Sunday morning instead of going to church. I guess church worship is not essential for him, at least not as essential as a round of golf. I do not begrudge the president a bit of recreation. He works hard and deserves a break. But his announcement would have carried much more weight if he practiced what he preached.

Back to the question at hand. Are churches essential? Well, that depends. I am an every-Sunday church-goer, but I have gotten along just fine these last couple of months without stepping through the doors of a church building. I have worshiped with my church via the internet every Sunday morning and have been very inspired by the services.

Of course I miss being in church and look forward to the day I can return. But it is not essential to my spiritual life to do so while an “invisible enemy” (as the president described COVID-19 this weekend) stalks our land killing thousands of people. Protecting the lives of the most vulnerable Americans is more essential. Keeping the church doors closed for a little longer is the best way for the church to fulfill the divine command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

The way I see it, keeping people safe is the godliest thing that the church can do at this time. By remaining closed temporarily the church is demonstrating its willingness to sacrifice its own welfare for the good of others. That is what the gospel is about. Perhaps this pandemic is a test to see if the churches also practice what they preach.

What about the issue of religious liberty? That seems to be the rallying cry of protesters who are insisting that churches be allowed to “open.” As a Baptist I am a life-long champion of religious liberty, but I don’t see this as the issue during this pandemic. I see no orchestrated campaign by godless Democrats or the Deep State to take away our right to worship, using the pandemic as a convenient excuse to do so. That sounds like a conspiracy theory.

Instead I see governors and mayors trying to keep their people safe by restraining people from assembling in large numbers, especially indoors where the coronavirus is most easily transmitted. Furthermore church attenders tend to be significantly older than the general population, which makes congregating even more dangerous for them.

If there is a conspiracy going on, I would guess that the call to reopen churches is an attempt by godless conservatives to kill off as many Christians – and Jews and Muslims - as possible as quickly as possible. At the same time these devious conspirators have somehow convinced Christians that they are doing them a favor by urging them to enter closed buildings and spew out virus-filled saliva droplets while singing and preaching loudly. Very crafty! Of course I don’t really believe there is such a conservative conspiracy, just as I don’t believe that power-hungry, anti-religious liberals want to outlaw Christian worship.

Once again, are churches essential? Not in the way the president has proclaimed. All the Christians I know can get by for a few more weeks or months without singing hymns and taking communion together. Neither is it financially essential for churches to meet in person. If money is the reason, all the congregants have to do is mail their offerings or give online.

But in a deeper sense church is essential to me spiritually. It is essential that I be part of a community of faith and not go it alone, like so many of my “spiritual but not religious” contemporaries. I need to be physically part of a church. But until that day arrives I would rather be part of a church that is willing to sacrifice itself in order to save the lives of fellow Americans. That is the least that Christians can do to serve our God and our country.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Giving Thanks in a Pandemic

My family has been spared the worst of this pandemic, and for that I am grateful. I know it could have been very different. I would be writing in a different key if I was grieving the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19. A lot of people are suffering terribly because of the coronavirus. Tens of thousands of Americans have died of the disease, usually alone and isolated from their loved ones. There are many families in grief.

People are suffering financially because of the closure of American businesses and governors’ stay-at-home orders. People have lost their jobs and incomes. Some are threatened with losing their housing as a result. People are lining up at food banks because they do not have enough to eat. People are angry. Mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression are on the rise, not to mention the run-of-the-mill types of neuroses that are exasperated when families are shut up together. Things are not good for many people.

I have not experienced any of that personally, except insofar as I empathize with those who are suffering. My safety is due to the fact that I live in a remote neck of the woods. I reside in a small town of a thousand people scattered over one hundred square miles of forest. According to the state statistics there has been only one case of the coronavirus in our town and no deaths. Similar statistics are repeated in surrounding towns. The angel of death has not come near our door.

There are lesser effects of the shut-down, such as social isolation, which we have experienced. We miss our kids, grandkids, church and friends. But we have adapted by seeing people and talking to them outside from a masked distance. I feel guilty for saying this, but for me the advantages of the pandemic restrictions have outweighed the disadvantages.

Weeks ago I shared in a podcast about the opportunity that these pandemic restrictions give us to pay attention to our spiritual lives. We are prevented from many of our regular activities, so why not use the time to develop our spiritual lives? Well, I took my own advice. I have focused on spiritual practices including meditation, mindfulness, spiritual reading, writing and recording episodes of my vlog and podcast.

My writings and recordings have been a form of spiritual journaling for me – a way for me to express myself in a deeper and more thoughtful manner. They have also put me in contact with people all over the world who have read my books and blogs or listened to my podcast or videos. Their encouraging words to me – and mine to them - has turned this online ministry into an extended spiritual community for me. While I am cut off from my local community I have gained a global community.

The time spent at home away from people has deepened my appreciation for silence and solitude. It is like being on an extended spiritual retreat. I am never bored. I avoid the television. I have used these weeks to pay attention to the Kingdom of God within me and around me – to “practice the presence of God,” as Brother Lawrence called it. I have become increasingly conscious of the Oneness that is always here. The pandemic has given me time to integrate this awareness into my daily life.

This has also caused me to empathize with those who are suffering. As Paul says, “If one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it.” There are family members and church friends who are suffering from illnesses unrelated to the coronavirus, and whose suffering is made worse by the social restrictions. People we love are seriously ill, and some have died. This prompts prayer, sorrow, empathy, and compassion.

We try to help others. My wife helps by baking bread and fixing meals for homebound people, sending countless cards, making phone calls, and distributing her little works of art around the community. In addition to being her bread-delivery driver and donating financially, I help by using my gifts - sharing my words of hope and peace and grace through my audio and video devotions. This has deepened my sense of the unity of humankind, the natural world, and God.

It is too much to say I am thankful for the pandemic. I wish it never happened, and I pray for it to end. But I am thankful in the pandemic. As the apostle instructs, “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” I am thankful for those workers on the front lives risking their lives. I am grateful for the opportunities that this pandemic has opened up for all of us. I am grateful for the love I have seen demonstrated by ordinary people.

If you have not been practicing a compassionate and intentional “pandemic spiritualty” these last few weeks, I encourage you to begin soon before you miss out. See what God has in store for you. You will be grateful. Gratitude is probably the best medicine for these difficult and uncertain times. As Paul says elsewhere, “nothing [not even a pandemic] can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

God of Empty Spaces

When the Roman legions conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD, they sacked the Jewish temple. They entered into the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, which for centuries only the Jewish High Priest had ever set eyes upon. They expected to find treasures galore, like they had found in every other temple they had ever looted.

They found sacred objects of gold in the Holy Place outside of the innermost chamber. The Arch of Titus in Rome shows the famed seven-branched candlestick, a table for showbread, and sacred trumpets being carried out by Roman soldiers. But in the Holy of Holies they found nothing. It was empty.

There was no famed ark of the covenant or anything else. This was not because the ark had been safely hidden away for Indiana Jones to later find. The holiest object of the Jewish religion had been lost centuries earlier and nothing ever took its place. There remained only the empty space to symbolize the presence of God.

Even when the Hebrews still possessed the ark, there was no image of God on it. On the lid of the ark were two cherubim facing each other with their wings outstretched. God was said to dwell in the empty space between the cherubim. YHWH was unique among the gods of the Ancient Near East. Whereas all the other gods were depicted with images, the Hebrew deity was imageless.

The ark itself was originally just an empty box as well, before the Hebrews began to fill it with sacred objects, such as "the golden pot that had manna, Aaron's rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant" according to the Letter to the Hebrews. That is the way we religious people are. We tend to fill up the empty places with material objects, doctrines and traditions until there is no place left for God.

On Earth Day the pastor of our local church began a series of messages on the biblical creation stories. Last Sunday she pointed out that in the first chapter of Genesis God spent the first three days making empty spaces and the next three days filling them in. I had never thought of it that way before. Emptiness and Fullness. Like any good sermon her words kept me thinking long after the benediction.

The universe started off as “empty and void” according to Genesis, and God preserved the emptiness in the midst of the fullness of creation. God created things but then separated them in order to maintain empty spaces. Separating the light from the darkness, separating the heavens from the earth, and then separating the waters on earth to form inhabitable land.

The Tao Te Ching says,

Spokes unite in the hub, 
but it is emptiness at the center 
that makes the wheel turn.
A pot is made of clay, 
but it is emptiness in the center
that holds the contents.
A house is made of wood, 
but it is emptiness within the walls 
that makes it inhabitable.
A human is made of flesh and blood, 
but it is emptiness at the center 
that makes us useful.

God is in the empty space. That is what the spacious interiors of the great cathedrals communicate. That is why the wide expanse of the heavens amazes us. That is why mountaintop vistas take our breath away. That is why the Grand Canyon awes us. That is why prayer and meditation are so powerful. We encounter emptiness at the center of our being.

That is where divine and human meet - in the Holy of Holies of the soul, the open space of consciousness which is our true nature. We are not these physical bodies or the busyness of the human mind. We are the space at the center. The treasure we seek is found in the emptiness.