It is Ok to Mourn: Good Friday and COVID-19

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We should mourn this Good Friday. The coronavirus has enveloped the globe in a cloud of black death. It has also reached into the church and overturned her basket of well-planned Easter events, sending Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Sunday morning services wobbling across the floor to cancelation. When the glorious Easter sunrise fills the horizon this Sunday, there will be no loud congregational singing, giddy children, or sweet hugs of friendship circulating though our church. We will remain home, isolated from friends. Though the world has suffered under the curse of sin for thousands of years, the isolation of holy week brings the sorrow of sin into our souls anew. For the first time in years, many of our hearts feel the words of Psalm 22:1 that Jesus screamed on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

During such times of profound brokenness, Christians should run to the Lord. Like the great King David who faced many piercing trials, Christians should confess their anguish to God. They should ask God,

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day (Ps 13:1-2a)?

The Coronavirus’s ability to disrupt the church calendar should serve as a powerful reminder of how broken our world is and of how much we need Jesus. We should allow the cancellation of our services to lead our hearts to humble and persistent cries for deliverance. “O you my help, come quickly to my aid! (Ps 22:19),” The Coronavirus is a problem of divine proportions than can only be solved by a divine antidote.

The antidote will come. The message of Good Friday is that Jesus conquers sin and death. For thousands of years, human culture has been trying to find antidotes to the brokenness of the world through education, feeding programs, and medicine. All of human efforts have failed. Men and women remain tied to pride, greed, lust, and selfishness. Sin is a problem of cosmic proportions that no person, nation, or culture can conquer. Yet, Jesus conquered it on the cross. He was forsaken by God so that we might be welcomed into heaven. Jesus died for our sins and then rose again on the third day to prove he had delivered his children from sin. Those who repent and believe can follow Jesus to love, generosity, and selflessness. But to get to salvation, men and women must wrestle with their brokenness. They must realize they are sinners before they can cry out for a savior and embrace his salvation. Only those who know they are drowning will let the lifeguard rescue them.

The pattern of Good Friday serves as a template for the Church as she encounters new symptoms of sin and death in the world. To find relief from this world, we must admit that we suffer and need God’s help. “Save me from the mouth of the lion (Ps. 22:21a).” When we take our grieving souls to God, we find deliverance. “You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen (Ps. 22:21b)!” Friends, the Coronavirus is a cosmic problem that God will recuse us from.

While we wait for the virus to end, many of us will become more aware of how much we miss the gathered body of Christ. We will be tempted to find unscriptural antidotes for our pain. Though we should embrace biblical forms of encouragement, we must resist the urge to drink the hyssop, an ancient pain reliever, that was offered to Jesus on the cross. (For more on my view of online church click here). If we turn to virtual Lord’s Supper, sermon binge watching, and zoom calls to treat our feelings of loneliness, we will not solve our sorrows for we still remain physically apart from our brothers and sisters We can touch the screen, but we cannot touch the face on the screen. If we try to fix our sorrows through human ingenuity, we will commit the mistake of the neglected spouse who copes with her distant marriage through romance novels. She may feel less pain while reading them. But when the chapters end, her marriage problems remain, and her heart has moved further away from her husband. The believer who feels neglected by God does not need a drive-in Easter service, he needs divine deliverance. He needs God to mercifully end the COVDI-19 crisis. If he fails to cry out to the Father as David and Jesus did because he is drinking grape juice and eating Ritz crackers in his home, he will neglect the biblical means of hope: prayer. He will find himself further from God. Just as those who fast allow hunger pains to drive them to pray, Christians should allow the pain of missed hugs, Lord’s Supper celebrations, congregational singing, public Scripture readings, and preached sermons to drive them to their knees in prayer. Instead trying to mitigate our sorrow through increased Wi-Fi bandwidth and FM transmitters, we need to join Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and pour out our prayers of lament to the Father for he alone can help us.

If there ever was a religion that made sense of our lonely world and that gave us a space to mourn while we await salvation, it is Christianity. Christians have both the sorrow of the cross and the joy of the empty tomb. We can mourn our loneliness while we wait for our salvation from COVID-19.

Let’s Relax: Online “Church” Is not Church

Online churchThe COVID-19 shock-wave that turned the United States upside down knocked more than one pastor out of his pulpit. With the help of Facebook Live, Youtube, and lesser known platforms, ministers have begun to regain their footing, launching online services. As pastors have started “going live” they have also begun to criticize their sheep who fail to watch their the latest sermon or who watch that sermon irreverently. Pastors who a few weeks ago challenged the legitimacy of the Facebook users’ faith are now employing Facebook to question the faith of those who do not use Facebook enough.

Irony aside, the pastors’ complaint raise a foundational question: What is a church? Is the online service truly a church service? Do those members who fail to watch their pastor online break the commandment of Hebrews 10:25 and forsake the assembling of the church?

What is a Church?

A quick overview of the New Testament reveals that online church services cannot be equated with the typically weekly gathering of the church. Though the definition of the church can be expanded to cover pages as Dr. Greg Allison has done, it can also be reduced to two basic elements: the right preaching of the Word, and the proper administration of the sacraments. For a group of people to rightfully claim to be a church, they must meet regularly to preach the gospel, to administer the Lord’s table, and to perform baptisms.

Can people meaningfully do these things when they are not physically meeting together?

The Scriptures say no. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he expected them to meet together as an assembled group of believers. He encouraged “the assembled” church to practice discipline, to rightly administer the Lord’s table, and to correctly employ tongues and biblical teaching (1 Cor. 5:4-5; 1 Cor. 11:18; 1 Cor. 14:23). The phrase, “When you are assembled” was the lens through which Paul shaped the church. When Christ spoke of the church, he too defined it as consisting of two to three people who physically gathered together to worship and to practice church discipline (Matt 16;18).

To borrow Jonathan Leeman’s terminology, the church is similar to a soccer team . The members of the team identify themselves when they play soccer together. Even when the teammates go home, buy groceries, and fly on airplanes, the members of the team can still be called “the team.”

In same way, the church is the church because it physically assembles together to hear the word preached, to eat the Lord’s Supper, and to baptize new converts. The church does not cease being the church between Monday and Saturday. Nor does a church’s inability to meet during the Coronavirus imply that the church has ceased being the church. But she has stopped meeting. Zoom meetings, phone calls, and live-streamed services are not the same thing as the game. The unassembled members can’t hear the whole church proclaim the gospel through prayer, song, and giving. They can’t pass the bread and the cup. They can’t dunk new believers in the baptistry.  They can’t hug one another and take each other out to lunch. Like Leeman, I too, “have a hard time envisioning an assembly that doesn’t assemble.” To worship, to play the game, the church, the team, must physically meet together.

What About Spiritual Presence?

Some pastors object to the exclusivity of physical assemblies, noting that 1 Corinthians 5:3 and Colossians 2:5 describe Paul as being spiritual present with distant churches. This spiritual connection between people hundreds of miles apart appears to negate the necessity of physical church meetings.

But when pastors place these texts in their biblical contexts, they will discover that Paul’s expression cannot be used to justify the live-streaming trend. Paul speaks of a spiritual presence precisely because he could not be physically present with the churches in question. Yet, he still connects with these assemblies spiritually because he knows they are possessed by the Holy Spirit that possesses him. Thus, he is confident that the churches he cannot physically attend will share his conclusions because all parties are lead by the same God. In much the same way a Brazilian church would expect a Bible believing Chinese church to condemn pornography or to pray in “Jesus’s name,” Paul expects the readers of his letters to live out the Christian the faith as he was doing. All Christians are spiritually connected by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.

Some pastors object to the above interpretation. As John Gill and Chrysostom, they argue that Paul was spiritually observing the congregations at Corinth and Colossia. But this view still cannot prove that YouTube is the equivalent of the physically assembled church. In Gill and Chrysotom’s view, Paul supernaturally saw the churches through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Paul went to the churches in much the same way that Ebeneezer Scrooge traveled to the shadowy visions of Christmas past, present, and future, seeing things no normal person can see. Even pastors backed by professional media teams cannot accomplish this supernatural feat and be present as Paul was present with these ancient congregations. For all its grandeur, live streamed services fall short of prophetic, real time visions. 

In short, Pastors today can only be spiritually present with their congregation when both the pastor and the congregation assent to teaching of the Bible, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This connection can occur and be furthered when the church is assembled together and when it is scattered. It can transpire when the pastor is online and when the pastor is offline.

So Are Online Service Bad?

No, they are beneficial. Online services and activities should be an encouragement to our souls. Throughout church history, Christians have encouraged one another with letters built around scriptural instruction, admonishment, and encouragement. Christians still enjoy and cherish gospel letters.

In a similar manner, live streaming platforms allow pastors to send meaningful notes to their entire church team and family. Just as a man enjoys Skyping with his wife and kids while on a work trip, pastors have a great rational for wanting to be in the living rooms of their church members during times of separation. And church members have every reason to want to hear from their spiritual fathers.  The family of God should love to communicate while they wait for the next face to face interaction. Live streaming blesses family relationships, allowing the team to stay in communication while apart.

In my experience, a word of encouragement from one’s spiritual father caries far more weight than a message of truth from a famous uncle or cousin whose lives thousands of miles away. But if a team member finds the online ministry of Pastor Joe in Oregon or Pastor Steve in New York to be more encouraging than my church’s online ministry, praise God for the ministry of other gospel centered pastors.

Online streaming has proven to be a phenomenal tool on the pastoral tool belt. Pastors and church members can embrace it with enthusiasm, sending and receiving digital messages.

Is It a Sin Not to Attend “Online Church?”

And now we return to the question which started our discussion: Do people sin when they neglect the church’s online service?

No, Christians have not sinned when they failed to watch Pastor Bob’s latest sermon or when they caught the last ten minutes of his sermon in their pajamas. Though Pastor Bob may have been at the church building, the church was not assembled. Moreover, some saints lack the technology to keep pace with their pastors digital evolution. Other members encounter a host of environmental struggles such as power outages, screaming children, and defective technology that keep them from watching. Though these members fail to watch online, their heart motives remain pure. Pastors who criticize their sheep for not watching their online services or for watching their online services “incorrectly” go beyond the bounds of Scripture. Like the pharisees of old, these pastors turn blessings into burdens. These pastoral rebukes bear a striking resemblance to the actions of a crazy uncle who complains about his nephew because the nephew did not regard the uncle’s birthday card highly enough. Instead of criticizing their spiritual children for not liking them more, pastors should examine their hearts to see how well they have loved their congregation. The pastor who loves people well will have no difficulty finding his people online.

Let’s relax, embrace the technology, and remember that our online services are not church services. Are you ready to relax?

Memo: April’s Cancer Update – April 2020

covid 19 blogThe world we spoke of last December has been transformed by the COVID-19 crisis. In our last update, we talked about airplane rides, hospital excursions, and theme park rides. Now, we wear masks to the grocery store, avoid airplanes, and enter hospitals with trepidation. The world of April’s healthcare has also been profoundly shaped by the coronavirus pandemic.

Though the coronavirus threateningly flies above our world, April’s health remains secure from the present threat of cancer. Her latest bone scan and CT scan have arrived full of good news. The tumors in her bones remain unchanged, having neither grown nor shrunk. And the tumors in her breast, lymph nodes, and liver have shrunk. We praise God for this good report. April can continue on with her current treatment plan.

Despite the good news, our home remains on high alert because of the COVID-19 threat.

April resides in the high-risk category because of her cancer and because her medications suppress her immune system. Were she to contract COVID-19, her chances for survival would be substantially lower than the average person. Moreover, doctors have noted that women with estrogen tend to be less susceptible to the virus. Since April has Her2- PR+ and ER+ cancer, she takes medicine that eliminates all of the estrogen from her body, placing her at greater risk than most. Not wanting to chance her health, we have embraced the quarantine, turning our home into a little fortress.

Because the COVID-19 dragon roams about our state, we have temporally shut our door to hospitality. We no longer accept the gracious offers of our friends to clean our house, cook us meals, and to watch our children. To strengthen our defenses, we stepped away from birthday parties and other social gatherings more than a week before the President recommended that all groups be limited to ten or less people. We limited Lily’s butterfly, dance, birthday party to our two fairy princes and one knight. We seldom cross the drawbridge of isolation into the COVID-19 world, visiting stores about once a week without leaving our car. We spend the remainder of our time, working from home, Cloroxing packages, and playing with our little kiddos. Luke, Lily, and Lacey have become acquainted with the virus, telling neighbor that they can’t play because of the coronavirus. Though we lament the need to fortify our home, we do not want April’s health to be undone by secondary causes.

IMG-7678 (1)We have not been the only one to mobilize our defenses. Both the Mayo Clinic and the University of Virginia have locked down their campuses. As the spread of the virus swept across the nation, April remained in contact with both medical teams. With one voice, the doctors at Mayo and UVA recommended moving April’s scans from Minnesota to Virginia, breaking protocol so that April could continue her treatment in the safest environment available.

Though the trip to Charlottesville takes about an hour, April found her trip this past Tuesday to be just as daunting as her six plus hour trips to Mayo. For the first time in her cancer journey, April had to go to an appointment without me. We did not want to expose our family to the outside world. When she arrived at the hospital, she went through numerous screenings. As she walked through the hospital that bore an eerie resemblance to this dystopian movie, she saw orange warning sign after orange warning sign requiring patients to keep their distance and to report their symptoms to a healthcare worker. She then sat in the “high-risk” waiting area, catching only glimpses of fellow, mask wearing patients being overseen by medical staff and security guards. Spaces that usually contained 30 to 50 patients now held only her. Thankfully all the precautions proved effective. April crossed the drawbridge back into our little fortress seemingly untouched by COVID-19.

Though the world suffers under darkness, our little fortress bustles with joy because we have seen God answer our prayers. He has blessed April with good scans. Moreover, as challenges related to the COVID-19 crisis have arisen, God has given April the strength to meet them. When the year began, April lacked the strength to cook meals, to clean, and to care for our kids. The past ten months, we have prayed for God to bless April with the ability to clean and to manage and teach our children at home. Today, she is able to do both.  We can say with the Psalmist, “Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me free.” Our hearts are full of thanks! Thank you for praying for us.

Please continue to lift us up to the Lord.

  1. Pray that God will heal April and keep her and our family safe from COVID-19.
  2. Pray that God will give us wisdom as we seek to balance caring for April and caring for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
  3. Pray that God will continue to give April daily strength and energy.
  4. Pray that the quarantine will strengthen our marriage and our relationships with our children.
  5. Pray that God would save our children.

 

Contact Info:

Email us at: biblefighter@gmail.com 

You can reach us via snail-mail at : P.O. Box 637/ Amissville, VA 20106

You are also welcome call Amissville Baptist Church at: 540-937-6159.

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Thank you for your love, prayers, and never-ending support.

Sustained By Grace Through Faith,

Peter and April