Wednesday, March 18, 2020

My Church Is Closed! Now What Should I Do?


Every church.. My church.. Your church.. Is a church of hope and joy. And yet as our Nation faces perhaps the worst pandemic in our lifetimes, Christians are telling news reporters that their church has abandoned them in their greatest time of need. We were suddenly faced with changes that are robbing us of that hope and joy that we so crave on a Sunday morning. When we most needed the comfort of the familiar, the worship service changed and became strange and unsettling. When we more than ever needed the love of friends and a reassuring hug, we were told that we must stay six feet away and not touch each other. The bread – the Body of Jesus Christ given for us – was now scented with the ethyl-alcohol odor of hand sanitizer. And now, at a time when we need our church family more than ever.. When we need some hope and joy in our life more than ever.. We drive up and see the sign. Our church doors are closed and services canceled. We’re upset. Maybe even angry. But.. Could that be God’s plan for this time?

THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED. 
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WHY CHURCHES ARE CLOSED:
Last Sunday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that no gatherings with 50 or more take place during the next two months to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. That effectively closed down nearly every church in America on Easter Sunday. Then on Monday, the President’s administration strongly recommended that people in all age groups gather in no more than ten people – and compliance with that recommendation will close every church in our Nation except for house churches. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had initially recommended that “people older than 60 and people with heart disease, lung disease or diabetes gather in groups of no more than ten people.” Our California governor, took that a step further and requested that all those 65 or older along with all those with existing medical conditions be quarantined for an undetermined period of time. The governor’s guidelines, not based on current recommendations of the CDC, has caused panic among those who are older. That’s why it is important to know that it’s not the healthy older people who are at the highest risk but those who are older with underlying medical conditions. There have not been enough infected people in the United States for a comprehensive study in our country, but China evaluated 72,000 infected persons and determined that most of those who died were over the age of 30. They determined that twice as many males as females over the age of age 50 had died. Of all those infected who died, over 70% were a smoker and/or had one of the following physical conditions: obesity, heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure or cancer. Those same underlying medical conditions also increase the fatality rate for older people who have the flu. Older people are more vulnerable to the flu and to these coronaviruses because an older person is statistically more likely to have one or more of the underlying medical conditions. Because all coronaviruses are more contagious than the seasonal flu, the CDC initially suggested gatherings of no more than ten people in the higher risk category because in a smaller group it is easer to make sure that no one in the group has symptoms of the virus. The newest Federal guidelines that people of all ages gather in groups of no more than ten are an attempt to “flatten the curve of infections” meaning that if life goes on as normal there could be hundreds of thousands of people suddenly getting sick in a very short amount of time and overwhelming the hospitals. By asking people to stay away from large groups and shutting down schools, churches, public events and restaurants, the infections will slow down and be spread out over many months, like the seasonal flu, and not impact the hospitals all at once. As the L.A. Times reported today (March 18) "flattening the curve doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of people who get sick: The goal is to spread the illness over time, reducing the impact on the healthcare system in any particular week or month but at the cost of making the epidemic last longer."

BE AWARE AND WISE:
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) makes recommendations based solely on known medical science. The Federal government along with state and local governments make recommendations based on sociological, economic and political concerns. The media publishes and reports everything that will engage our emotions. We need to stay aware and wise. Chinese researchers had previously claimed that asymptomatic people were transmitting the virus but had not presented clear-cut evidence. Medical scientists found the study flawed and the conclusion was dismissed as false. The hysteria multiplied two days ago with the release of another study also concluding that most of the coronavirus infections in China were passed on by people with no symptoms. That study relied on computer modeling software that generated the subsequent hypotheses based on when people may have visited a Chinese festival. The CDC says they are aware of these unsubstantiated reports, but they have no evidence of the disease being spread by people who are showing no symptoms. The CDC says that the primary way the disease is spread is by direct contact with coughed or sneezed droplets from people when they are the most symptomatic – the sickest. A medical doctor with the San Diego County Health and Human services calls reports that non-symptomatic people are spreading coronavirus a “rumor” and says that if you don’t have the symptoms, “you cannot transmit it to other individuals.” I’ve heard about pastors with a “What, Me Worry?” attitude who are under-reacting and heard about pastors spreading fear among older people in their churches with their overreactions. We need to pay attention to what the CDC tells us and recommends and make wise decisions for ourselves and our loved ones based on medical science and our faith in God.

THE TRUE CHURCH MAY NOT BE WHAT WE THINK IT IS: 
We need to have a good grasp on the theology of church because it is our understanding of what church actually is that undergirds our response to the coronavirus that is terrifying so many people in our country and in our community. The church pictured above is a church of hope and joy. The pastor is a friend of mine and so are many of the members. But no church is the source of hope and joy. Only God and God alone is the source. The “church” is a gathering of people where hope and the joy of the Lord can be found every Sunday. In the singing of the hymns and worship songs. Hearing the Word of God. The prayers of the people. The welcoming warmth and affection conveyed to one another with smiles and hugs. Sermons that leave us edified, encouraged and filled with hope for our future. And the moment of reverence as we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the bread and wine. But the building has nothing to do with any of this. If your church is shuttered and locked, there is no joy in the carpet. No hope in the drywall. No Holy Spirit power in the pews. The presence of Christ is no longer in the communion vessels stored in the cabinet. God left the building when the last person walked out and locked the door.

WE ARE THE CHURCH!
Hope and joy is not in the building but in the “Ekklesia.” Throughout the New Testament, the Greek word ekklesia, that we see translated as “church,” has nothing to do with a building. The ekklesia is literally the “summoned ones” – the called out ones. It is you and I who are the ekklesia (church). You could lock up the building and throw away the key and the ekklesia will continue to be the “church” of hope and joy. When Jesus told His disciples, “..I will build My church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it,” Matthew 16:18 ESV He was not speaking of institutions, the priesthood, traditions and buildings. Jesus used the word ekklesia – His called out ones – and He said that the gates of Hell will not prevail against His community of believers. (Can I get an AMEN here?)

WE ARE THE CALLED OUT ONES FOR A TIME SUCH AS THIS!
This past week was the Jewish Feast of Purim that celebrates the Jewish Queen of Persia, Esther, who boldly confronted the King and saved the lives of all the Jews in the kingdom who had been condemned to die. Not an easy thing for Esther to do because appearing before the king without being invited was sure death – even for the queen. But we read that her kinsman Mordecai convinced her to save their people by telling her that perhaps she had become the queen “for a time such as this.” Esther 4:13-17 

Esther.. you.. me... For a time such as this, our Sovereign God who rules and reigns over the world strategically places His called out ones where we are most needed. And where we are most needed is not inside the church walls but outside in the chaotic and terrified world gripped by a virus that no vaccine can stop. The church building is locked, but the ekklesia – community of believers – is now sent out to be the ambassadors of Christ to speak words of comfort and encouragement to those feeling hopeless. We are called by God for we are the people of "hope and joy." Many churches who have closed are “live-streaming” their services from their empty church. That’s a nice way to stay in touch with our pastor, but we can’t live-stream a church service and then lie back on the couch to take our Sunday nap. We are the called out ones for a time such as this! 

THE MOST VULNERABLE:
In our own ekklesia, about half of those in mainline congregations are over the age of sixty and many of those are the ones who suffer from health issues and who then fall into the group most vulnerable to serious complications if infected by the coronavirus. Without the Sunday services, we’ve lost the ability to check with them to find out how they are doing. Some have family members who are looking out for them and caring for them, but some do not and those are the ones with whom we need to stay in contact throughout this crisis. This is not just your pastor’s job to help those in your church family. It’s your job. Consider calling, emailing, even visiting if both you and they are healthy. We are the called out ones for a time such as this! 
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A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE TO THE CORONAVIRUS

#1 HAVE FAITH:
As Christian believers, we must be wise and do everything we can to protect our own health but ultimately our trust is not found in a face mask but in our Heavenly Creator. If we are still at work or with others and wringing our hands in despair while we are wearing our cross, we send the message that our Christian faith gives us no comfort and strength in times of trial and tribulation. Focus on His Word and pray that God will build your faith so that you can build up and strengthen others.

To You, O LORD, I lift up my soul. Psalm 25:1

Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? Matthew 6:25-27

Cast all your anxiety upon Him, for He cares for you.1 Peter 5:7

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7

#2 WORSHIP:
Take some time to worship – not just Sunday – but every day and perhaps every time you feel stressed about what is taking place in the world right now. Sing along with your Christian CDs, YouTube, Spotify and other sources of hymns and praise and worship music that you may have. If you are home with your children or grandchildren and there is no “Sunday School” for them to go to, consider “Tuesday School” or whatever day works best where you can gather the kids for a Bible study and to pray for family, neighbors, school teachers and friends.

#3 PRAY:
We should be praying every day for loved ones, family, friends, neighbors and for all those in our church family. But when people are struggling with fears of getting sick, running out of needed food and losing income and jobs this is, more than ever, the time to pray. We also need to set aside any unchristian political hatred we may have and pray for the president, his administration and the government leaders of this country. We need to pray for those physically, emotionally and financially impacted by this disease. We need to pray for doctors and medical workers. Most of all we need to pray that everyone struggling with the virus itself, or the impact of the virus upon our society, will be drawn closer to God and trust in Him.

#4 LOVE OTHERS:
“Loving your neighbor as yourself” means not filling up a shopping cart with every box of Kraft’s Macaroni and Cheese along with all the Instant Rice still on the shelves and depriving the mom whose cupboards are bare and has three hungry kids at home now that schools closed. Loving your neighbor does mean asking the person next door who doesn’t have a car, or the person in your church who struggles with going to the store, what it is that they might need that you can pick up for them when you do your own shopping. Two weeks ago, we drove up to Carpinteria to drop off a box of food for an older widowed friend who was sick. We visited for a few moments through her closed screen door and standing about 10 feet away to avoid contact. Taking care of friends and those in need doesn’t mean that you must put yourself at risk.

#5 SUPPORT YOUR CHURCH:
Many people give to their church only on the Sundays they attend with the same mind-set as if they were attending a sporting event, concert or having a meal at a restaurant. Our offering is our commitment to support God’s church, it is not an admission fee to attend the service. If churches are obedient to the CDC recommendations and close for the next two to six months, many will be in severe financial distress and pastors and other church employees may not get paid. Many smaller churches in our Nation who rent or lease space will be permanently closed. The business expenses of running a church continue whether or not the Sunday services are held and the offering plate is passed. Make sure you continue to give your usual offering by sending it in the mail and perhaps even consider giving more to offset the drop of income from those who do stop giving during this period of closure. Remember also your church family members. The hardest hit as restaurants and stores close will be those workers who often struggle financially in the best of times. On Monday, the Mayor of Los Angeles signed an order forcing all restaurants, bars, nightclubs, fitness centers, health clubs and movie theaters to close until at least March 31st. That just removed the income from every restaurant server plus many thousands of other employees in our City until the end of the month and possibly well beyond that. Home domestic workers such as house cleaners are being hit especially hard as people do not want anyone in their homes that can possibly be sick. If you can afford it, consider giving, through the church, to those in your church family who may need your financial help. Talk to your pastor about this if that is what God is calling you to do.

#6 IF YOU ARE ABLE, PROVIDE CHILDCARE:
Some of those most impacted by the closure of our schools are single-parents who have no family to watch their children at home. Some are facing not only a complete loss of income during the school closures but the possible loss of their jobs if they must stay home to take care of their kids. If you are physically healthy with no symptoms and are able to provide childcare to those in your church family, talk to the parent and see how you can help them.

#7 DON’T PANIC, HOARD, POLITICALIZE OR SPREAD FALSEHOODS:
None of these are Christian behaviors. Our panic is simply the evidence that we have no trust in a Sovereign God who loves us and who rules and reigns over our lives. No matter what happens, all is well with our soul. It is helpful to also keep the coronavirus in perspective. Over 80% of everyone who has gotten the coronavirus has reported mild “cold-like” symptoms. It is foolish to worry about getting the coronavirus if you don’t get your flu shot. While the numbers are changing every day, according to the CDC, there have been as many as 55,000 deaths in our Nation attributable to the flu so far during this year’s flu season. 70% to 90% of those flu-related deaths are people older than 65 years, most of whom had the underlying medical conditions mentioned above. As of last Monday (March 16), the CDC reports only 68 deaths in America from the coronavirus.

Those who are panicking are the ones who are hoarding. Frantic newscasters showing video of empty store shelves and long lines wrapping around the Costco parking lot are causing even more panic. People with the wealth to buy up crates of face masks and hand sanitizer are needlessly hoarding and depriving others from obtaining the supplies they need to protect themselves and their family. No one needs a year’s supply of toilet paper stored in their garage while others are searching stores and unable to find a single roll for their family.

Please do not weaponize the coronavirus to advance a political agenda. As the upcoming elections draw closer, 81% of Republicans but only 13% of Democrats approve of the way that the President’s administration is handling the coronavirus outbreak. Both politicians seeking the democratic nomination harshly condemn Trump for the outbreak in the United States but as tempting as it may be to cast the blame on a political opponent, Trump is not responsible for the current coronavirus. And former President Barack Obama was not responsible for the swine flu pandemic a few years ago that caused 60.8 million illnesses, 273,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths in the United States. No president or country will ever perfectly handle a pandemic. Severe illnesses, suffering and deaths happen. Read Genesis 3:1-24 to understand why.

Please be careful with what you tell others so that you are not inadvertently spreading falsehoods. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson released an official statement that the U.S. Military under orders from the White House had brought the coronavirus into China to destroy its economy and Russia is also spreading those same conspiracy theories. It pays to do a little research and do some fact checking before you pass on information to others. And for your own sanity, knowing the truth can bring a sense of calmness and peace. Pastor Greg Laurie (Harvest Crusade) said last weekend that the fear of the coronavirus is more dangerous than the virus itself and the director of the World Health Organization expressed that same observation to the L.A. Times. Knowing the truth is what frees us from the fear.

AND MOST IMPORTANTLY:
Remember always that no matter how long this lasts and no matter what takes place, we are the called out ones for a time such as this! Many services end with a dismissal that sends forth the congregation to do God’s work in God’s world. It is an act of sending – of mission. The pastor says “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord..” And we automatically mumble our response as we’re picking up our things and hurrying out for coffee and donuts. But God has now moved us out of our comfortable and familiar worship from inside that building that we call “church.” God is now creating circumstances where we must get some feet and hands into our pastor’s oft-ignored dismissal and mission. God is now sending His disciples out into the world where we are needed more than ever. We can make a difference with our loving care of others. We can make a difference with our words, “But one who prophesies (speaks forth God’s Word) strengthens others, encourages them and comforts them.” 1 Corinthians 14:3 NLT God’s disciples always make a difference!


Note: I started writing this AMEN Corner on Sunday night and finished it Tuesday afternoon. Some sections had to be rewritten multiple times because every time I looked at the latest news there was a new rule, recommendation, shutdown or policy. By the time you read this, the quoted statistics, policies and recommendations will most likely have changed. What has not changed is our Christian response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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The AMEN Corner is a weekly devotional for the family and friends of New Hope Family Church. It is intended for this devotional to be strengthening, encouraging or comforting and your comments too should be for the glory of God and reflect the intended purpose of these posts.

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