On Following Christ, the Church, and the Effects of COVID Isolation
History begins with an explosion of Divine creativity. Eden is birthed and man lives in communion with God, in harmony with creation, and in the gift of God’s shalom. And yet, even in this glorious state, God declares one thing is not good. What is this one thing? God declares, “It is not good for man to be alone.”
God declares isolation is not good. God’s intent for creation, and more specifically, God’s intent for people, is not independence and aloneness. Rather, it is to experience life-giving connectedness with God and with the imago Dei. Inter-dependence is one of God’s sacred gifts.
Behavioral research reinforces our awareness of the negative impact of isolation, characterized by high levels of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, insomnia, and stress. Both biblical revelation, as well as clinical research, reinforces our understandings of isolation’s dark effects.
Professional counselors have a bird’s eye view of COVID19’s isolating effects on individuals and families. Over the last 8 months, the isolation associated with COVID19 has created a significant surge in persons seeking help as “shelter in place” orders were issued in the spring, lay-offs and furloughs were implemented late in the summer as PPP funds were depleted, and struggles with addictions and mental health among the masses intensified. For those active in Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, and many other twelve-step programs, being with other people is essential to experience recovery. In 12-step communities, COVID’s isolating effects have been devastating for individuals and families. Missy and I couldn’t help but notice how busy the liquor store became at the entrance to Costco at the outbreak of the pandemic. This would be confirmed in due time, along with its tragic effects, through well-written articles.
Christian Pastors have a dual-lens in this era of history; one that observes the negative effects of a pandemic on mental health, as well as one that beholds the negative effect COVID has had on the purposes of the Church and the spiritual health of her people (When you see the word, “church” try to think “people” and not an institution).
Think and reflect prayerfully on the following, with the realization of God’s intent for the good of His people wed with His glory:
The New Testament blazes with the white-hot admonition for Christians not to neglect our regular rhythms of coming together:
“And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do;” Hebrews 10:25 (NLT)
The New Testament burns with intensity regarding the importance of what we practice in our coming together:
We are to “spur one another on to good works,” “love one another,” “bear one another’s burdens,” “forgive one another,” “forebear with one another.” In fact, the “one-anothers” are used 100 times in 94 verses in the
New Testament to instruct us in how we are to be intentional in caring for one another and “building each other up” as we come together.
The New Testament boils with passionate language in how we are to channel our devotion:
“They devoted themselves to . . . fellowship.” Acts 2:42 (NLT)
In the Greek text, the word translated devoted (proskartereo) means “hold fast to something, continue or persevere in something.” In other words, we are to hold fast and persevere in being intentional about being with one another. (You can watch and listen to teaching on this topic HERE).
John Wesley, when speaking of one of the purposes of the church regarding Christians growing in sanctification, affirmed the following conviction, “There is no holiness but social holiness.” Wesley’s context for this statement is not related to social justice as some have falsely claimed. Rather, he is referring to Christians needing to experience social connectedness with other Christians to develop in Christ-likeness. This matter was so convictional for Wesley he developed the methods of Methodism through the gathering of societies, bands, and class meetings. To be a Methodist Christian was to be disciplined in regular discipleship rhythms taking place through deep connections with other believers.
As we live in a pandemic, we will continue to see upticks in COVID cases in the Winter months to come. And even after the COVID19 vaccine is distributed, we will still be living with COVID in our midst for a while. There is no perfect, completely safe time to come back together for social connectedness in worship and discipleship in the near future. And in light of occasional surges of COVID, I honor the difficult decisions our Council on Servant Ministries has had to make over these many months. When we do return, which I hope will be sooner than later, we will continue to wear masks and social distance. And if you are elderly or immuno-compromised, one needs to be mindful of making choices that are best for you as it relates to being in crowds.
United Methodist theologian, Dr. Kevin Watson, appealed to the church back in August to not let fear govern decisions regarding gathering for in-person worship. Watson’s urging was based on encouraging the church not to forsake the purposes for which she was created, which is all the more important in the lives of people living in the context of a pandemic. He stated,
“Study Gnosticism, why it is a heresy, and why the body is an essential part of the Christian life and part of what needs to be saved. Corporate worship with bodies present matters. There are going to be seasons in the midst of a pandemic when it is impossible to responsibly gather corporately in the flesh. But we must not pretend that what we do in the midst of those times is as good as the physically gathered body. It just isn’t.”
As we navigate through a unique time, it is essential that we do not fall into default thinking that believes I can both give myself to God and not give myself to His Body. We are designed for both. The vertical is the priority, and the horizontal is the result. For some of you reading this, you were not active with the body of Christ before the pandemic. This is a good time to ask yourself what God would want to teach you. Perhaps corporate worship and discipleship with others is something you did not see or appreciate before; but COVID, and the isolation it has created, serves to awaken your spiritual senses. Being in-person with your church family is not a matter of personal preference; it is a matter of God’s design.
This is a good hour in history to ask ourselves: Are these matters convictional or optional for me as a Christian? Is my participation in the gathering of the body of Christ to magnify God through worship, and participating in discipleship gatherings merely a part of routines I had grown accustomed to before COVID, or are they seen as essential purposes for my life?
A.W. Tozer, in his classic work, “Man, The Dwelling Place of God,” writes,
“The important thing about man is not where he goes when he is compelled to go, but where he goes when he is free to go where he will. The apostles went to jail, and that is not too revealing because they went there against their will; but when they got out of jail and could go where they would they immediately went to the praying company. From this we learn a great deal about them. The choices of life, not the compulsions, reveal character.
A man is absent from church on Sunday morning. Where is he? If he is in a hospital having his appendix removed his absence tells us nothing about him except he is ill; but if he is out on the golf course, that tells us a lot. To go to the hospital is compulsory; to go to the golf course, voluntary. The man is free to choose and he chooses to play instead of to pray. His choice reveals what kind of man he is. Choices always do.”
For many of God’s people, there is a longing to press into the purposes for which we were created; not because gathering with other believers is familiar or it’s our normal routine, but because gathering with other believers is the kind of people we are. For many, gathering with fellow believers for worship and discipleship is not optional, it’s convictional.
To gather with other believers to glorify God, treasure Jesus Christ, love others, and make disciples of all peoples, is to step into the very purposes for which we were created. It is also a sign of faithfulness to the vows most of us made before a Holy God when we committed to being in membership with a local body of believers through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.
The late Tom Wood, one of the saints of Christ Church, used to say, “The one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.” The following is certain, we will come out of this pandemic at some point. We have had multiple pandemics in history. We have come out of all of them.
What is uncertain is this; will you come out of this pandemic the same? Will you come out of this pandemic with a fresh resolve for Christ? Will you come out of this pandemic with a fresh commitment to worship and discipleship in person, present with His body, and expressing mission together to a dying world? Will you waste your wilderness, or will you allow God to do a new work in you for His glory?
If you can answer rightly in God’s eyes, Eden awaits you.
Paul Lawler is the Lead-Pastor of Christ Church UMC. He and his wife, MJ, have four children and one daughter-in-law. In addition to serving as a pastor, Paul and his brother, Dallas area businessman Patrick Lawler, founded two Patricia B. Hammonds Homes of Hope for orphans at high risk for human trafficking in Thailand. The homes are operated through the international ministry of the Compassionate Hope Foundation. Paul also serves on the boards of The Wellhouse, The Compassionate Hope Foundation, and the East Lake Initiative. He often tweets Kingdom thoughts at @plawler111.
Expressing Worship Through Living
Last month I wrote an article on “How To Worship Online.” Today I want to continue that thought with some ideas regarding how we express worship in our daily living. It is one thing to come into the Sanctuary or the Worship Center or even connect with our phone or computer each Sunday and be a part of corporate worship; expressing praise and adoration to the creator of the universe, singing of our love for our Savior, reading scripture together, praying, hearing the word of God spoken. It is quite another thing, however, to carry these expressions into the outside world, a world where such expressions are quite often eschewed. Here are a few tips on taking your love for God into the world.
- Don’t be timid, love God to the fullest in everything you do. We have all heard the expression “What would Jesus do.” Take this expression to heart. Think about your actions in every circumstance: at home interacting with family, at work interacting with co-workers, shopping, driving… Remember how Jesus interacted with others in His life.
- Love your neighbor as yourself. Remember that your neighbor is not necessarily the person who lives in the house next to yours but everyone you encounter during your daily routine. This command of Jesus reminds us that we should treat others in a way that we would want to be treated – with gentleness, with love and kindness.
- Look for opportunities to express the love of Jesus. Opportunities abound in which you can invoke your love for Jesus. Be proactive in seeking out these opportunities. A word of peace to a troubled soul, A prayer with someone you may not know who is suffering. Helping those who are poor. Visiting the sick. Even making a phone call to someone who is lonely. Do something to brighten the day for someone who is going through a rough time.
- Express the joy of your salvation. Approach life with a positive attitude. It is easy sometimes especially when we let our guard down to lose our joy. Just remember you are a child of God and God wants nothing but the best for you.
- Lead others to follow Christ. By word and by deed your faith will be expressed to those around you. Live your life in such a way that others would want to find that spark of joy they see in you. Don’t hesitate to give witness to the saving knowledge you have found in Christ.
There is a familiar statement that is often etched into the stone header over the doors of many churches that reads like this: Enter to Worship – Depart to Serve The real question for us today is: what will we do when we leave our place of worship. Let us depart to serve.
Traditional Worship Leader & Pastoral Care Minister
Don’t Get Your Hopes Up!
Really? Is that the wisdom of the day? To minimize the desires of the heart so that the sting of disappointment is bearable! I had hoped that this Covid stuff would have been over by now, but I’m told to not get my hopes up. I was hoping that we would be having Sunday morning worship together by now, but I guess I had my hopes too high. I had even hoped that my Texas Longhorns were going to be able to play their rematch with the LSU Tigers, but once again, I am reminded that I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I am tired of hearing about hopelessness. In fact, I am sick of it! One of my favorite Scriptures on hope comes from Proverbs 13:12 “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Imagine that, having hope but waiting for a future day to be fulfilled by it. I can understand the world falling into a rut like that, but for those of us who have faith in the Almighty, we don’t have an excuse. For God’s word in Hebrews tells us that “faith is the confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see (11:1).” So just because I can’t see hope, doesn’t mean it is not there.
In chapter 5 of the book of Romans, Paul tells us that “hope does not disappoint us,” so why wait, come on, go ahead and get your hopes up! Dallas Willard tells us that “hope is the confident anticipation of good.” What a great attitude to have to start your day. You have probably heard it said that there are only two ways to wake up in the morning, “good morning Lord,” or “oh Lord, it’s morning!” Likewise, you can choose to hope and anticipate good, or default to fear which is “the anticipation of evil.” So, I don’t know about you, but I want to get my hopes up!
You know, even if we think our hopes have been dashed, the good Lord might have a different plan for us. Even when we think hope is gone it just might be that we can’t see it yet. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus on that day of resurrection show us that the greatest of hopes can sometimes be veiled! You see Luke tells us in his 24th chapter that the two on the road talking to an unrecognizable Jesus confessed “we had hoped that he (Jesus) would be the one who was going to set Israel free!” Little did they know at the time that hope was looking at them square in the eyes.
So, I acknowledge to you that I have listened to the world proclaim, “don’t get your hopes up,” one time too many. I choose not to defer hope. How, you might ask? By meditating on God’s word, that’s how. You see, the two on the road to Emmaus, received hope and initially didn’t even know it. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he (Jesus) explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:27).” That revelation gave them the hope that they thought they had lost. In Jesus Christ there is always hope!
So even though we continue to have Covid in our lives today, we still have hope. And even though we are not gathering Sunday mornings yet, we have hope for the day we will. And you know, it’s not a big deal Texas and LSU won’t be playing their game together, Texas would have won anyway!
Grace and Peace,
How to Worship Online
By Bill Tiemann
It has been quite a long time since we have been able to gather in person for worship. Because of the covid-19 pandemic worshiping online has been the only option available to us. You may be wondering just exactly how does one worship online? To answer this question let us first determine what worship is. According to Miriam Webster the definition of worship is: 1. to honor or show reverence for a divine being or supernatural power and 2. to regard with great or extravagant respect, honor, or devotion. Worship is a verb, indicating that there is to be some sort of action, an expression, a demonstration. Worship is not something that is just watched or observed.
Scripture tells us that we are to express our love and devotion to our God through the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. We show reverence as we come before our God with our prayers and words of affirmation. We express our extravagant respect as we hear the word of God being taught by our pastor. These are all things that require some sort of action from us. That’s easy, you say, when we are gathered with the entire congregation, but it feels silly for me to sit on my couch in front of my TV or device singing a hymn or song out loud. Let me ask you this question then: do you feel silly screaming and expressing your joy and delight in front of your TV when your favorite football or baseball team is winning? Probably not. Let us all worship in spirit and in truth expressing our sincerest love and respect for God as we gather in spirit through the media of video worship.
Here are some practical tips on how to worship online
- Prepare your heart for worship: before you push that play button on your device spend a few moments in prayer asking the spirit of God to be with you and to open your heart to accept a word from Him.
- Sing the hymns and songs aloud expressing your innermost love and respect for God. Sing quietly if you must or even sing within your heart but sing the words as an expression of worship.
- Read aloud the words of affirmation and scripture readings as if you were gathered with the larger congregation.
- Hear the Word of God: Listen to the words of the teaching from the pastor and apply them to your life as you go forward in your daily living.
- Hear the still small voice of God: sensing the leadership of the Holy Spirit as you worship.
- Give of your Best: Remember that the giving of your tithes and offerings is also an act of worship. Things are different now, at least for the time being, which means you may have to give online or through the mail but giving is important.
- Go forth to serve: Corporate worship (when we are all gathered in person) is extremely important. Remember that real worship expresses itself as we go about our daily lives. We live out our expression of adoration and praise to God as we interact with our friends and neighbors in the workplace, where we shop, at school and online.
To God Alone Be Glory and Praise
Traditional Worship Leader &
Pastoral Care Minister
Christ Church United Methodist
Pentecost – When the Spirit Moves Through Children
Almighty God, on this day through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, you revealed the way of eternal life to every race and nation. Pour out this gift anew, that by the preaching of the Gospel, your salvation may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
– Book of Common Prayer
Spring Break and the Spirit
During one spring break in college, I was a part of a smaller team made up of students from our college ministry, scouting our missionary opportunities in Belize. I spent an entire day in the back of a truck with one of my buddies named Ryan. We were driven from village to village across the country by a man we had met for the first time early that morning. Soon, we pulled up to an orphanage at sundown to join the rest of our group, who had been playing with the children for most of the day.
I was supposed to give a sermon that night after dinner during worship. Before the trip, I had prepared what I might talk about, what Scripture I could use, what stories I could tell, etc. But after spending a few days in Belize, and an entire day in the back of a truck and helping with various physical tasks, I realized that nothing I had prepared would have mattered.
When we got out of the truck, Ryan and I made a beeline to this small concrete plot with a basketball goal and joined some of the kids from the orphanage for a game of two on two. It was during this game where I realized that what I had prepared to talk about wasn’t going to work.
We were called into their bigger room, and I was asked to find a spot toward the front of the room. Sweating and still catching my breath from the game, my mind started to race as I thought about what I would say when I got up to speak. I couldn’t think of anything, so I prayed. I asked that God would still use me and give me words.
So I stood up, looked at all of the children – ranging from babies to a couple of guys who had just turned 18 and were soon going to be leaving home – and I smiled. The only words I could say were, “Jesus loves you.” I remember asking, “Do you know that? Do you know that Jesus loves you?” And as those words came out of my mouth, every child broke out in song – “Jesus loves me this I know…”
And as I smiled even bigger, tears started rolling down my face. I have never been so moved by the Spirit in my entire life.
We are told that when the day of Pentecost came, Jesus’ disciples were together and sitting in a house. Now, we are told that among them were the original 11 disciples, a new guy named Matthias (who had just been added to the 11), some certain women, Jesus’ mom, and Jesus’ brothers. We know they are back in Jerusalem, and they are sitting in a house, and I would guess that they are a bit on edge. Jesus, now risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, has informed them that they are to receive the Holy Spirit and be his witnesses in Jerusalem (where they are), Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Then, as they were watching Jesus ascend, some angels asked them what they were doing and told them to get on with it – to get back to Jerusalem because Jesus has given them something to do.
But now, they are sitting in a house in Jerusalem – waiting.
I am sure they were praying. They were probably discussing all of this over and coming up with the best plan as to how they might actually carry out this whole “witnessing” thing that Jesus has given them to do.
And then, it got really loud…think wind tunnel, the rush of air thundering in your ear so loud that you can’t think kind of loud. And then, tongues of fire. Yes, you read that right. Tongues of fire appear above the disciples’ heads, glowing as they descend upon each of them and rest there. The disciples are then filled with the Holy Spirit, giving them the ability to speak the languages of all who are present in Jerusalem – those who have come to celebrate the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost).
Of course, you are probably familiar with what happens next. Crowds gather together. People are amazed but shocked. The disciples are accused of being drunk at 9 am. And Peter delivers an incredible sermon. Then, 3,000 people come to faith and are baptized. The church of Jesus Christ is birthed.
For the followers of Jesus today, Pentecost provides the opportunity to become aware of the gift of the Spirit and the birth of the church. Because God’s Spirit came to us, we as Christ’s body have been brought to life and given the power to know God’s will and do it.
Here is the thing though…
This world presents plenty of challenges. To be completely transparent, most of the time, I feel like the disciples might have felt when Jesus was ascending to heaven before their eyes. I would surely have been thinking, “Oh no, what now?” Surely they began to feel hopeless or worried, even with Jesus’ final words still ringing in their ears. At least one of them must have asked, “How am I supposed to do that? If they killed Jesus, what will they do with me?”
Think about your life. If you are like me, there have been moments of doubt, despair, or helplessness – especially when we see racism lead to the death of men who need not have been murdered, or while we live in the midst of a global pandemic. Confusion and weariness are natural feelings that come during such times.
It can lead to a deep loss of hope. It can lead us into a place of complacency.
Enter Pentecost. God’s Spirit rushes in and shakes us out of our complacency and renews our hopes. Though things may be dire and life may present incredible challenges, the good news we learn from Pentecost is that Jesus was not lying when he said he would “be with us always until the end of the age.” The Spirit of God enables us to live out and live for justice, peace, mercy, and love. We are given new life, the church is born, and we celebrate the power of life in the Spirit.
This is the life we are called to – a life in the Spirit where we live in relationship with God, with our selves, with our neighbors, and with the world around us. A life seeking God’s Kingdom and His will to be done.
Little Children and the Spirit
I felt a little bit like the disciples might have felt when Jesus ascended as we pulled up to the orphanage that evening in Belize. I had prepared and knew that I had been given an opportunity to share about Jesus. Before leaving Chattanooga, I had thought through some ideas for a great sermon. But then I got to the children’s home, played with them, laughed with them, and got to know them. I started to think, “Oh no. What now?”
And then, at the mention of Jesus and his love for us, the Spirit rushed in. Instead of a wind tunnel and the sound of air so loud and intense that one could not hear themselves think, the Spirit moved through little children. Sweet, innocent, and beautiful children. As the Spirit moved, I stopped talking and got out of the way. As the Spirit moved, all I needed to do was watch and receive. And that is the heart of Pentecost, isn’t it?
Let the Spirit move. Watch. Receive.
May we have eyes to see this Pentecost. May we have ears to hear. May we have hearts open to receive what the Spirit may be trying to do in us.
[author] [author_info]Michael is the grateful husband to Sara. They are the lucky parents of their son, Grady. Michael has earned a B.A. in Religious Studies from UT-Chattanooga, and a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Church Planting from Asbury Theological Seminary. Michael enjoys spending time with Sara, running, good coffee, reading, and playing with their son. Being from Memphis, he is an avid Memphis Grizzlies fan.[/author_info] [/author]
What is Holy Week?
By Michael Bowman
If man had his way, the plan of redemption would be an endless and bloody conflict. In reality, salvation was bought not by Jesus’ fist, but by His nail-pierced hands; not by muscle but by love; not by vengeance but by forgiveness; not by force but by sacrifice. Jesus Christ our Lord surrendered in order that He might win; He destroyed His enemies by dying for them and conquered death by allowing death to conquer Him.”― A.W. Tozer
The next day, Holy Saturday is a time of solitude and sabbath. It is a chance for us to meditate on the time that Jesus was dead and buried. This Saturday is one of anticipation because we know the end of the story.
We know that death is not the end. We know that, soon, Jesus is walking out of that tomb. Yet, we wait with anticipation and longing. We await the coming of the third day, where our true hope is found.
Because of Easter, you and I are new people living in a new world.
We fell away from what we were intended to be, as beloved daughters and sons created to bear the image God. Yet, on Easter, our image was restored. We have been mended back together, and our broken relationship with God has been made right again. This does not mean that evil no longer exists, for it does. However, its power is no longer final. We are living in the already but not yet, where all is now new, and yet God is continuing to restore all things. And this is what we come together to celebrate on Easter Sunday: the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
[author] [author_info]Michael is the grateful husband to Sara. They are the lucky parents of their son, Grady.
Michael has earned a B.A. in Religious Studies from UT-Chattanooga, and a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in Church Planting from Asbury Theological Seminary.
Michael enjoys spending time with Sara, running, good coffee, reading, and playing with their son. Being from Memphis, he is an avid Memphis Grizzlies fan.[/author_info] [/author]