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.
Lent: Life from Ashes
By Michael Bowman
Our creation story in Genesis tells us that God made man (Hebrew word, adam) out of the dust of the ground (Hebrew word, adamah). God makes woman the same way. And God has a great plan for their lives.
The man and woman, as they walk with God in the cool of the day, learn how to be fully alive, how to tend and care for the garden, as well as how to tend and care for one another. Being fruitful and multiplying, as God had commanded them, became a natural part of what it meant to be alive. All was well.
That is until the man and woman wanted more. There was one forbidden tree that seemed to offer the more that the man and woman were looking for. They wanted to learn good and evil for themselves…they wanted to be like God. As they reached for that forbidden fruit and took turns eating it, they did, in fact, learn new things, but it was not quite what they expected. With each bite from the forbidden fruit, the man and woman learned fear, blame, guilt, and shame. When God comes looking for them, the man and woman now hide.
Then, the man and woman are sent out from the garden by God, and they learned a new reality – death.
“…you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:19
Or, as Eugene Peterson translates this verse, “…you started out as dirt, you’ll end up dirt.”
These words ring out from sanctuaries and chapels, homes and cathedrals, throughout the world every year on a Wednesday (known as Ash Wednesday) that begins a season known as Lent.
As it goes, people will enter into these sacred spaces and as these words are shared with them, a mixture of oil and ashes will be smeared (the church-y word is “imposed”) on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. This mark is a reminder of our mortality as humans – that one day, we will face the reality of death.
Lent has begun, and the reminder of the reality of death will ring in our ears for the next 40(ish) days.
HOW WE GOT HERE:
Advent begins the Christian year with the pregnant expectation of new life in God. At Christmas, birth has been given to new possibilities of life in God. During Epiphany, we, like naive children, or like the naive magi, dare to dream big and impossible dreams and journey after a seemingly unreachable star not knowing what may be waiting for us when we arrive.
And then we come to Lent. Lent is a season of adolescence. We have spent the last two months as childlike dreamers, but we now recognize our innocence has been lost. At Lent, we come to a full stop and take an account of who we are, or maybe who we have become. We look inward and focus on the difficult realities of ourselves, others, or the world around us. We allow ourselves to ask questions, work through doubt, and even wrestle for our identity and purpose.
Matthew tells a story in his Gospel about a ridiculous looking and sounding man named John. John baptized people, so he was known as John the Baptist…because that’s what he did (kind of like how Big Bird is named Big Bird because he’s a big bird…okay, sorry for that). Jesus, who happens to be John’s cousin, shows up one day to be baptized by John.
As Jesus comes up out of the water, God speaks and shares with everyone present exactly who Jesus is – “my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The Holy Spirit descends and rests on Jesus like a dove. Then, the Holy Spirit immediately sends Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1). Notice, Jesus was not led by the Spirit into public ministry – preaching, healing, etc. – but into the wilderness to be tempted.
This is meant to cause the reader to remember the story of God’s people when he rescued them from slavery in Egypt. The Book of Exodus shares with us how God’s people, the Israelites, spent 40 years in the wilderness (the desert) before God led them into the Promised Land.
In both stories, one may notice how God provides for Jesus and his people. When the devil leaves Jesus, we are told the angels minister to him. Even while the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness, God provided them with “manna” that they may continue to be fed.
LENT FOR YOU AND ME:
During Lent, we not only remember these stories, but we enter into our own wilderness – whatever it may be. Our journey in Lent begins with a reminder that we will die one day – all of us. Throughout Lent, if we allow it, we enter into the wilderness and face head-on our present temptations, the threats of evil in our world today, our biggest questions and doubts, how we may need to die to ourselves to make more room for Christ, and all of the ways in which we have misplaced our loyalties or our desires. In the wilderness, we can see more clearly the places in our lives where we need healing most, the aspects of who we are that need to be made whole, or the dead places in us and around us that need to be restored back to life.
“Lent invites us to risk the journey through death to life, to enter a wilderness filled with danger, to enter the desert where both God and the evil one dwell.” – John H. Westerhoff III
(I can’t get through one of these without quoting this guy…)
If you are like me, you may want to skip Lent completely. It might sound because Lent, as a whole, sounds too sad. Maybe, all you know about Lent is that we are supposed to give up sugar or Facebook, and you don’t want to give up either. Or, maybe, you would rather skip Lent and get to Easter, because Easter means feasts, time with family, pastel colors, and smiling faces.
The good news for us is that Lent is a season devoted to giving us room to remember just how easy it is for us to forget that we are totally dependent on God and his grace for life, itself.
Lent is not a season to be skipped over. The season is set aside to allow followers of Jesus to form new habits rooted in spiritual disciplines. It is a time where God’s people rid themselves of comforts or things of this world, to create more room for God in their lives. Really, Lent can be thought of as a time where we open our broken selves to God to allow him to make us whole.
Though Lent is 40-plus days long and can feel long, the wait is worth it. Lent ends with perhaps the biggest and greatest celebration of the entire Christian year…
Easter is coming.
Yet, to skip over Lent would be to miss the point of Easter.
Without death, there is no resurrection.
The apostle Paul said it another way – “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies…What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 15:36,42)
We begin Lent with ashes being smeared onto our foreheads and being told that we will die. We are adolescents searching for our identity in the dark. Yet, we end Lent with an acknowledgment of who we are and what we live for, on the cusp of our new story – we are to become witnesses and recipients of God bringing the dead back to life.
Again, most people think Lent is a time where we are supposed to give up stuff we like – social media, sugar, fatty foods, laughter, or fun (just kidding about those last two). But this would be missing the point.
This Lent, try something different.
First, go to an Ash Wednesday service and be reminded of your mortality. Then, give yourself time and space each day going forward to look inward. Enter into the wilderness, knowing that you are not going alone – the Spirit is with you. Search for how you have been trying to define yourself, for the ways in which you have done wrong, for the questions and doubts that you may have, for the areas in your life that need healing, or for the dead parts of your life that need to be brought back to life. Ask God to help you. Fast. Give yourself time for silence. Read the Scripture. Listen.
As you do this, you may begin to find broken areas of your life. Offer these areas of brokenness to God. Allow him to make these places whole.
Dare to remember that God made life from ashes, and he is going to do it again.