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Jesus said at his crucifixion, “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31). I wonder if the wood is dry, and we have no idea what to do or what will happen. We don’t even know the questions to ask, and we are not prepared for this. What does it mean to be faithful and to enter Eastertide when feasting seems so far away?
I don’t remember the first time I heard about the Coronavirus on television or the internet. My first real memory was late February because Lindsay, my wife, was planning to fly to Luxembourg on March 11. The day she was boarding the plane in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the local liberal arts college and our seminary announced their closure. Lindsay was landing in Luxembourg only a few hours after President Trump’s announcement of a European travel ban. Even more, I was single parenting while trying to call my wife, who was 30,000 feet above the world. I didn’t know what to do.
I did what I knew how. I prepared for class. I was hoping to process the Michigan Governor’s newly announced Executive Order and to consider pastoral leadership questions for a pandemic. Yet when I called several pastors to ask them what the current news meant, many lacked an answer and simply said, “We will get through this Sunday and then figure it out.” Yet once a growing number of Governors announced, “Stay Home, Say Safe” orders, Sunday was also quarantined.
In our anxiety, we go to what we know. What will we do about Sunday? This was the first and central pastoral question. This was my first question. As a global pandemic was emerging, we, clergy, were still asking about the weekly gathering. Some pastors believed they would still gather. Some are still trying.
Gospel or Ecclesia?
But, in fact, Sunday worship isn’t the primary pastoral question during a pandemic. We are far away from the Christianity of Martin and Katharina Luther and the Bubonic Plague. (Martin lost two brothers in the Plague ca. 1505). The first question that pastors in 1527 pestered Luther to answer was not, “What about Sunday?” but “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague?” His was a question of life and death; of pastoral presence and medical security. This was not a question of gathering or preaching or even administering the Sacraments.
I believe the question posed to Luther is more gospel-centric than ecclesia-centric. I wish this differentiation of the questions wasn’t possible, yet we know the gospel and the church sometimes collide more than collude.
The question posed to Luther is a question trying to understand the words of Jesus, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
The question I first asked, “What about Sunday worship?” is more about attraction. The inheritance of American Christianity today is less about saving lives – the gospel – than it is about keeping people – the ecclesia. This feels quite crass to me.
The initial panic of the American church in March pointed to keeping Sunday for the church’s sake rather than to the pandemic for the world’s sake. Even now weeks in, some states are relieving restrictions for church gatherings. Who is the church in the US without Sunday as her centerpiece? What might become of the current and inherited state of American Christianity, which appears to be unsure about its significance beyond Sunday morning.
I watched pastors and leaders plan for Sunday on week one, two, and three. But now Easter is coming and most are/were hoping that we would gather again on that day — even our President was hoping.
Wordiness — Doing What We Know
The energy poured into planning worship worries me. I worry that Sundays are the central work of the church, while thousands are sick and others are dying and many are anxious and others alone. What do we do with this? Who is the church in this time?
When Sundays carry us, especially in White Evangelical, Reformed, or Mainline forms, words and meaning-making take center stage. We try to make sense out of it all; we try to explain it.
I worry that the wordiness of worship ignores Marilyn MacIntyre’s painful invitation, “Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.” Or as NT Wright recently wrote, “It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain.”
We cannot yet make sense of this time. Verbose online worship or lengthy monologues may be the exact opposite of what folks desire or need. I feel this in my own teaching.
But this is what we know. I heard one wise and self-aware pastor say it well. I asked her, “Why spend so much energy planning, recording, and editing online worship?” She responded, “Because this is what we know how to do. This is how we justify our work to our people.” I ached in sadness but paused with gratitude for her honesty. This is what we know how to do. We are not prepared otherwise.
As weeks go on, new questions have emerged for pastors and preachers — the gospel-shaped ones. When Governors announced their Executive Orders, schools were suspended and nursing homes visitors restricted.
It is here that the gospel questions emerged beyond Sunday. The laws are pushing the church to ask new questions. The book of James paints for us the questions that are central: What about the “widows and orphans”? What about the elderly and the children? This is the question of true religion. What about food distribution and healthcare? What about the state of loneliness, anxiety, distraction, domestic violence, and addiction? What about job loss? What about marriages?
These and all the other painful realities that face our nation and our churches (even in the absence of a global pandemic) are challenging to our clergy-consciousness. I am amazed at how many congregations are currently seeking to help, seeking to serve, seeking connection with the widow/er, and seeking to join the gospel in the world. I wonder, how do we make these questions the first ones the next time this happens? (And it will happen.) How do we put the church back into the gospel?
I worry that the way we have inherited the Christian faith and practice leaves us unable to ask the right questions during this time. It is not that I believe Christianity and its people have always lacked this ability. I think Christian history offers us questions by the way it responded to the plagues and to death. Yet in order to pastor the way Luther and others did is to take up death as a real option (see Todd Billing’s forthcoming book, The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live).
I think Scripture has a word and questions for us, but lament and the prophets are more aligned with our complaints, anxiety, and confusion than with any sense of meaning-making or signs of hope. When I think of history and Scripture, the questions emerge by living into and through our grief and even our anxiety.
But most of my questions are still seeking to answer, “What do we do?” because most of us are formed in a faith of works. I know I am.
A friend offered a helpful critique for America, and I think it is pertinent to the American church, “We’re beginning to see that the traditional ways that Americans may handle adversity may be coming up a bit short,” says Daryl Van Tongeren. The article continues, “Part of that is because the imagery doesn’t quite fit: We are, in many ways, a nation that prizes concrete ideas; fighting the minute and invisible coronavirus is a very abstract notion. We are, in many ways, a nation that has obsessed on outcomes; this is a saga fraught with frustrating processes. We’ve been conditioned for generations to be a certain brand of rugged-individualist tough; now we’re being asked to be tough in a way that’s completely different.”
Christianity in America is presently facing adversity for which we are not prepared. I would like to offer solutions. Reclaim the neighborhood. Practice solitude and contemplation. Sure, these may be good, but also too quick to be clear. As I sit in the anxious stillness of Stay Home-Stay Safe, I am wondering if we have yet to discover the questions. Maybe, if anything, the question Christianity offers is simply this,
How Long, O Lord? Or Maranatha, Come quickly, Lord Jesus!