The Police and Deadly Force

I’ve historically been a supporter of law enforcement.  (I confess to having made jokes about donuts, etc., but in fairness, I also make preacher jokes.)   Among other things, I’ve always been taught that police officers have great courage and have the discipline to show great restraint, even under very tense situations. I’ve watched shows that portray officers going through a staged environment where cardboard cut-outs spring up.  I’ve watched as they fire shots into the mocked-up thug pointing a gun, while NOT firing at the cardboard paper boy.  Honesty, I’ve always thought that I could never do that!  Those that can get my admiration.

In light of recent circumstances, however, I questioned what was considered proper for police officers to use deadly force. I had my own beliefs but I wanted to have that belief either confirmed or denied. Doing a little research, I found this diagram to explain when officers use deadly force:

Another person sent me a copy of text directly from an officer’s manual. It is is worth reading::

“Deadly force is force that is intended to or likely to cause death.  Whenever safety permits, police officers should identify themselves and state their intent to shoot prior to using a firearm.  Officers are to discharge their weapons to stop an assailant from completing a potentially deadly act as described.  Officers should shoot to stop the threat and to minimize danger to innocent bystanders.

An officer may use deadly force:

  1. As a last resort in defense of oneself, when there is reasonable cause to believe that the officer is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm.
  2. As a last resort in defense of another person, whom the officer has reasonable cause to believe is being unlawfully attacked and is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm.
  3. As a last resort to prevent escape of a suspect where the officer has probable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has used deadly force in the commission of a felony and the officer reasonably believes there is no other way to make the arrest or retain the custody of the person once arrested, or the person to be arrested can reasonably be thought to be intent on endangering human life or upon inflicting serious bodily harm.  In any event, the officer should not use deadly force unless he/she believes it is necessary and then only as a last resort.”

That diagram and that excerpt from an officer’s manual go right along with what I’ve always believed.  Lethal action hinges on terms like, “last resort,” and, “imminent danger of death or great bodily harm.”  I repeat that I’ve always had great admiration and respect for officers for having the courage, restraint, and discipline to follow these principles.  I know it wouldn’t be easy.  I don’t believe I would have the nerve, so kudos to those men and women in uniform who do.

Now, I want to illustrate the principle as I understand it:  If I’m standing five feet in front of an officer, with my back turned to the officer, with a gun in my hand pointed at the ground, the officer is supposed to show courage, discipline, and restraint and not shoot me.  (While I have a weapon, since I am facing away and pointing at the ground I am not showing intent nor am I able to shoot anyone from that position.)  If I then begin the raise the weapon and suddenly spin to face the officer, that IS creating imminent danger and the officer would be justified, as a last resort, to shoot me.

Now, in the wake of the, “officer-involved shooting,” of suspect, Jacob Blake, a video has circulated showing the suspect ignoring instructions from police officers and trying to get away from them.  As he tries to access a vehicle, an officer pulls on his shirt from behind and fires seven shots into his back.  Jacob Blake survived (probably paralyzed but he lived) but I think there is widespread agreement that seven shots meets the definition of deadly force (“likely to cause death”).   There may be a lot of factors and variables that we don’t know and that is why we await the final report from the investigation.

Meanwhile, however, without having the final report and without knowing of additional details, I’m repeatedly reading, from multiple sources, that hypothetically, since the suspect had a record and was non-compliant, and since the officer didn’t know why the suspect was trying to access the vehicle, the officer was fully justified to use deadly force.

I’m sorry to say that this hypothetical stance concerns me.   When analyzed, it is but a lightly-cloaked version of, “shoot first and ask questions later.”  It reveals a standard very different from, “last resort,” and, “imminent danger of death or great bodily harm.” 

Again, restating the disclaimer that the final post-investigation report is not available yet, hypothetically, I would rather believe that this kind of shooting is an anomaly; that it represents a failure to adhere to established principles.  I would rather believe that it is not standard operating procedure for our police officers to shoot a person in the back because MAYBE the situation was going to escalate.  I would rather believe that the vast, vast majority of our police officers are still exhibiting the courage, restraint, and discipline to reserve deadly force as a, “last resort” when under “threat of imminent danger of death or great bodily harm.”

I say Kudos to all the men and women in law enforcement who live up to that high ideal.  Those officers have my support.  To those who can’t (or won’t) live up to that high ideal, sorry, but law enforcement is not for them.

Blessed Trinity

As I write this, it’s been a week and half since Trinity Sunday.  Reflecting on the Trinity brought up a memory from my days at Nazarene Theological Seminary.

Back then, requirements for the Master of Divinity included facing an inquisition.  Officially it was labeled a, “comprehensive oral exam,” and was designed to see how well a student had assimilated and applied all that they had learned in the program.   But being subjected to a two-hour oral exam by a panel of three professors did feel a bit like an inquisition.  (In fairness, there was no actual torture or hostility from the inquisitors.)   My own oral’s panel consisted of theology professor, Dr. Staples, Dr. Finley who specialized in Biblical studies, and Prof. Whitlock from the Christian Education department.  

At some point in the middle of my exam I was challenged with something like this:

“Wilson, imagine you are out there pastoring a church and one Sunday morning you walk down the hall of the Sunday School wing and stop and stick your head into an early elementary classroom. You observe the teacher using an egg to explain the Trinity.   What is the problem with that?”

I immediately began thinking about the theology of the Trinity and started to formulate my answer.  The egg illustration talks about the shell, the white, and the yolk forming one egg.  It is said to be analogous to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being one God.   So far so good.  But then problems arise:  An individual part of the egg, like the yolk for example, is not fully an egg.  The Son, however, is fully God… 

Before I vocalized that answer, however, another thought dawned on me.  The question had not come from Dr. Staples, the theology professor.  It was a question from Prof. Whitlock, the Christian Education guru.  I smiled ever so slightly and answered something like this:

“The problem is that explaining the Trinity is not proper subject matter for young children.  The concept is too abstract.  Children’s lessons should be focused on basic Bible stories, especially stories about Jesus.  Explaining the Trinity should come later when they are more mature.”

It turns out, that was the answer he was looking for!

Years have gone by.  While I don’t think my answer was wrong, I have had to revise my opinion.  Perhaps “expand” would be a better term.   My original answer implied that the Trinity could be explained to people when they matured.  I no longer think that is the case.  Even for mature Christians the idea of the Trinity is just too abstract to truly comprehend.

We can certainly teach the truth of the Trinity. As my denomination puts it in our Articles of Faith, “We believe in one eternally existent, infinite God, …   The God who is holy love and light is Triune in essential being, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One God, Triune in essential being!  The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God.  The Bible teaches that to be true.  The Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit are equal with each other but not equal to each other.  They are three persons but one God, not three Gods.   Jesus, the incarnate Son, is said to be,  “fully God.”  But of course Jesus is not the Father, nor is he the Holy Spirit.     But how can these things be true?  Therein lies our problem.  We want to know how, but we simply can’t.  It is beyond our understanding.  Once again, faith is the key!  Through faith we can believe these things to be true, in spite of not being able to comprehend how. 

Having said that I close with my favorite expression of the Trinity.  This expression doesn’t explain the Trinity, but it does  give us a handle to help us to think about the Trinity.  It is a relational expression that I learned from Dr. Staples, who before examining me, had taught me.

The Father can be thought of as, “God above us.”  He is the majestic, transcendent God that is up there.

The Son can be thought of as, “God with us.”  Literally the meaning of, Emmanuel.  The Son became incarnate and dwelt among us.  He was tempted in every way just as we are.  He even died for us.

The Holy Spirit can be thought of as, “God in us.”  The Holy Spirit is the empowering, comforting, guide, and teacher who lives in us. 

The Trinity–God above us, God with us, God in us!

In the words of hymnist, Reginald Heber, “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! … God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

Remember, Don’t Honor

Benedict Arnold was a great officer—until he wasn’t!    He was a brilliant strategist who led us to victory in multiple battles and was promoted to the rank of major general and given charge of fortifications at West Point.  He then planned to clandestinely surrender West Point to the British!   His plan was disrupted and he defected to the British where he was given the rank of brigadier general and led troops against the United States. 

Do you know any Americans who attended Benedict Arnold Elementary School?  Do you know any veteran who was ever stationed at Fort Arnold?  Have you ever posed for a picture standing by a statue of Benedict Arnold?   No, to all of those questions.  (There is a statue of a boot that is said to commemorate Benedict Arnold but his name isn’t even on it.  There was also a Fort Arnold but it was renamed after his betrayal.)  Without those honors, we have never forgotten him or what he did.  The same should be true with regards to the Confederate States of America and its leaders.   

Think about the actual words of the Pledge of Allegiance:  “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

We are the “UNITED States.”  The Confederate States tried to break that unity.

We are “ONE NATION.”  The Confederate States tried to make us two.

We are “INDIVISIBLE.”  The Confederate States took up arms to divide us.

We proclaim “LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL.”  The Confederate States did what they did primarily in defense of slavery which is diametrically opposed to liberty and justice for all.

It is true that the Civil War and the Confederacy are a part of our history and should never be forgotten. That history should be commemorated in museums and on historical markers at significant locations; it should be written about in our text books and taught in our schools.  

But we must remember that while the Confederacy should never be forgotten, it should never be praised, glorified, or honored.  (It is not hyperbole to say that Confederate leaders, both civilian and military, were treasonous.  Taking up arms against the United States is the very definition of treason.)   But the truth is, we have already done so.   We’ve also placed statues in town squares and other places of honor.  We have flown their flag in front of government offices, courts, and on our military bases.  We have even honorifically named schools, parks, and military bases in their honor.  

The time has come to remedy that mistake.  Statues in places of honor (town squares, in front of public libraries, etc.) should be relocated to museums and/or proper historical sites.  Schools, military bases, parks, streets, etc., that have been named in honor of Confederate leaders should be renamed.  It’s time the southern states that formed the Confederacy recognize that the Civil War is a scar in their history, not a highlight.  It should not be seen as bragging rights, but as an embarrassment. It’s time they identify and lift up new heroes and new symbols to express their southern pride.

Jesus: Disruptive, Peaceful, Protestor

The current civil unrest has resulted in many significant and peaceful protests across the country. There have also been escalations that have turned violent and destructive. I’ve written that the underlying causes of these protests have merit and truly do call for action. I do, however, want to share my thoughts on the right and wrong way to protest. What I want to say arises directly from a Bible story. Ironically, it is a Bible story that is sometimes misunderstood and used in support of the kinds of actions that I oppose.

It is the story of Jesus taking action against injustice he saw in the temple.  All four Gospels share the story but John gives the most details.  Furthermore, John is the only one that mentions a whip, an important part of the misunderstanding.  For those reasons, I’m sharing John’s telling of the story. It’s found in John 2:14-16: :

“In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!””

Biblical and ancient world scholars shed a good deal of light on what was really going on. The Israelites came to the temple to worship, make sacrifices and also to pay the temple tax.  There were rules about the sacrifices that had to be made.  Someone who needed to sacrifice a sheep might wait until he got there then buy one.  Scholars tell us they did so at unfair prices.  Others might bring a sheep with them only to be told it wasn’t a good enough sheep.  Again with unfair prices, they could trade it up for a better, qualified sheep.  Later the sheep that had been rejected earlier would be resold to a different worshiper as a qualified sheep! It was quite the scam.  Then there were the money changers.  The temple tax had to paid with a particular coin. Worshipers could exchange their currency for the right coins, again at unfair rates of exchange.  That is why, as recorded in the other writers’ version of the story, Jesus declared, “you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The temple was supposed to be a house of prayer but it had become a place of greed and exploitation. Worshipers were being exploited and abused.   That is why Jesus got angry!  And that’s when he lost his temper and turned violent and destructive.  Or did he?  While I’ve heard this story referenced to say that sometimes violence is called for, I think a careful review reveals a different perspective. Let’s look.

First it says, “So he made a whip out of cords…”  Think about it.  He made a whip out of cords.  That requires braiding.  Can you imagine someone “losing their temper” then braiding? That is not the action of someone who has lost their temper. Yes, Jesus was angry, but he was in control and he began working a plan.

The rest of that sentence says, “[he] drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle.”  Grammar tells us, if you analyze the sentence, that the clause, “both sheep and cattle,” modifies the earlier word, “all.”  So according to this, he made a whip and used it for stock animals, not for people.  Secondly, a word about using a whip to drive animals:  I looked it up.  When driving stock animals, whips are a tool, not a weapon.  They have one main purpose; to make noise.  Cracking a whip to move animals is not being violent.

The Scripture then says, “He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.”  This was certainly aggressive, but the action was aimed at inanimate objects, not people, so it wasn’t violent.  Having the coins scattered and tables overturned would have been very disruptive, but not destructive.   Jesus didn’t break and burn things.

Lastly, the story says, “To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’”  This was direct and firm, but not violent.  He used words, not force, to remove the offending parties from the temple courts.

Jesus saw injustice and protested it with aggressive action.  But not with violent or destructive action.  While firm and direct, he remained a peaceful protestor. 

If I had my way, everyone would follow Jesus’ model (be Christlike).  When injustice is seen, we would aggressively spring into action with firm protests. We would work to right the wrong.  We might even be loud and disruptive; Jesus was.  However, also like Jesus, we would stop short of becoming violent or destructive.  We wouldn’t hurt anyone or destroy anything. 

Condemnation of violent and destructive protests brings with it a grave responsibility: We have to pay attention to peaceful protests. We have to truly listen and work to solve the underlying problems that are precipitating the protests. When a hurting, frustrated minority rises up in protest, it behooves us listen. Dismissing the protests, denying the underlying problem, or even counter-protesting will always escalate the situation. When that happens, it doesn’t justify violence and destruction but it makes it inevitable.

Preachers and Contradictory Advice

I arrived at my first pastoral assignment and discovered that a handful of the church men were golf enthusiasts.  My previous golf experience had been limited to a handful of outings with a friend during my college years but I committed to joining in.  During one round, I was about to drive the ball when one of the men said something like, “Pastor, I’ve noticed you have a bad slice.  I think I can help you with that…”  He proceeded to instruct me with some finer points concerning my stance, grip, and swing. When he finished his coaching, one of the other men spoke up: “Pastor, forget all that.  You don’t golf often enough to perfect your game.  Since you know that you slice the ball and end up twenty yards to the right of where you want to be, just aim about twenty yards to the left.”

These were men in my church whom I loved and respected. And they loved and respected me.  They were both well-meaning but they were giving me contradictory advice. Whose advice was I to follow?   It really put me on the spot as I didn’t want to insult either of them by adopting the advice of the other! Looking back, I think the situation was the funny: There I was, completely stressed over church men relationships while playing a game people play to relax. My anxiety and discomfort in the situation was disproportionate to the significance of the situation.

But a similar thing sometimes happens to me in a much more serious context. It’s not so funny. Namely, I get contradictory advice from my colleagues, church members, family, and friends regarding my preaching (including teaching and writing). In this instance, the difference is based not on from whom the advice is coming, but on the subject matter at hand. (I am speaking from own experiences but I don’t think I’m alone in this, so please pardon me for switching to plural pronouns.)

When certain sinful behaviors are brought up, we preachers are advised to, “preach the truth!”  We’re told, “Don’t be afraid, be bold, call a spade a spade, that is, call sin sin.” Our advisors like to remind us that John the Baptist was a hero for bravely speaking out against King Herod’s illicit relationship.  That’s speaking truth to power. We preachers are urged to be like the Old Testament prophets who regularly called out the Israelites, God’s own people, when they were sinful.  It is even pointed out to us that Jesus himself often confronted the Pharisees and teachers of the law (the religious leaders) and that he went so far as to overturn the tables in the temple, therefore, we preachers should not pander to political correctness, but rather, we should, “lay it on the line,” even if it angers people.  We preachers are advised that we need to show the world that we stand for something.

But then at other times, not so much! 

When the topic of certain other sinful behaviors arise, we preachers are given the opposite advice! We are told to, “stay in our lane,” and stick to evangelism. We should stay out of these issues and not interfere.  Even though John the Baptist was a hero for confronting King Herod, when it comes to the behavior of our own government and government leaders, we are encouraged to forget John the Baptist and keep quiet because, “Preachers should stay out of politics.”   And when the behaviors in question are found in the church, we are firmly advised that we should, “Never judge or criticize other Christians (God’s people, those in the church) lest outsiders think we are divided and we lose the chance to reach them.”  We preachers are told we should be careful not to offend anyone because keeping the peace should be our priority.    Unity in the Spirit at all costs! 

This contradictory advise would truly be a dilemma if we preachers took our marching orders from our colleagues, church members, family, and friends. But we don’t. We take our marching orders from God, via the Bible and via the Holy Spirit speaking directly to our hearts and minds. 

In my (back to the singular pronoun) junior year of college, I came to believe in my heart that God was calling me to give up the career path I had finally settled upon and become a preacher.  One night I slipped off to the dorm prayer chapel and told God that I would do his will but that I didn’t want to make a mistake with something as important as my life’s work.   I prayed, pleaded really, that he would give me some kind of assurance that it was really his voice I was hearing. I was young and immature, but wise enough to know that I shouldn’t pursue a life of vocational ministry unless it was truly a calling.   After praying, I flipped open the Bible and began to read.  It had not been part of my strategic plan, I just did it. It happened to be the following passage.  I read it and said, “Yes,” to God and never looked back:

2 Timothy 4:1-5. “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

That passage became the Scriptural basis for my life’s path.  I changed majors to Religion and Philosophy, then went to Seminary for a Masters of Divinity, and have served as a pastor since 1988. This passage also continues to guide my preaching.

Clearly, the phrase, “do the work of an evangelist,” (v. 5) directs me to work to reach the lost for Christ and preach evangelistically. However, that’s not all that Paul had said. I interpret phrases like, “correct, rebuke, and encourage,” (v. 2) to be aimed at facilitating the spiritual health and growth of believers (the Church, those who are already Christians).  Apparently, it was assumed that even within the Church, correcting and rebuking would be needed at times. History has born it out to be true.

Furthermore, I believe that phrases like, “people will not put up with sound doctrine,” (v. 3) and they will, “turn their ears away from the truth,” (v. 4) are not referring to lost sinners; they never had their ears turned towards the truth in the first place. Rather, it refers to believers.  There is always the danger of Christians turning away. When that happens, if they are not corrected, they may eventually fall away completely. 

The passage also includes encouraging, (v. 2) so my preaching must include that as well.

All of these elements of preaching began with, “Preach the Word!” (v. 2) Sometimes it’s evangelistic, sometimes it’s correction and rebuke, sometimes it’s encouragement, but it must always be the Word! I try to find balance among these things. I can’t, however, pick and choose based on the advice I get from well-meaning advisors who would prefer I hit hard on some topics while remaining silent on others.

So I have some favors I’d like to ask on behalf of we preachers (back to plural).

First favor: Please understand that our messages originate from God through the Scripture and his Spirit. If you truly wonder about something, ask and the topic may show up in a sermon. However, understand, and I say this with all due respect, the topics we cover are not for you to choose.

Second favor: When you don’t like what we say, prayerfully ask yourself why you don’t like it. I want to suggest three main possibilities. 1) Make sure it is not honest guilt making you feel that way. If it is, repent. 2) Perhaps it’s a morally neutral issue and it is just a matter of a difference of opinion. If that’s the case, please understand that we preachers have the right to our opinions, too, and show us some grace. We can agree to disagree and we can do so agreeably. After all, we are commanded to love one another and bear with one another. 3) I hate even the thought of this one… Iif you are unhappy with our message because it goes against Biblical teaching, then call us out on it! Go ahead and confront us. Be angry. If we are preaching against the Bible, you ought to be angry. (But remember, as Paul taught, even in your anger, do not sin. There are right ways and wrong ways to deal with justified anger.)

A Bike Ride (Photo Essay)

The wafting flag reveals the otherwise invisible wind. Sometimes it’s a headwind with which you must do battle. Other times it assists you from behind.

At times our paths are clearly marked and it is clear which way to go.

At other times, options present themselves and choices must be made.

At times the journey before you is smooth and straight.

At other times, you can’t see what might be around the next bend.

We encounter places where people have created environments of openness and visibility.

Other places have been designed for invisibility and isolation.

There are places of natural beauty.

And there are scarred and ugly places.

There are times and places where rules and regulations are explicit and which of necessity must be more closely obeyed.

Barriers crop up which must circumvented.

There are times and places to work and be productive.

There are also places to play!

Renewal is often called for but it is usually messy and gets worse before it gets better.

At times we are forbidden entrance to enticing places.

Regardless of the places you journey through, it takes work.

And at times we need to take the opportunity to stop and rest.

As it turns out, a bike ride is like life itself!

(On May 30, 2020, I took a 15-mile ride; 7.5 miles north then 7.5 miles back south. The route was strung together from the Kenosha Country Trail, Racine Country Trail, and Racine’s Root River Pathway, These photos were all taken on that route.)

God Takes Sides

Psalm 9:9 says, “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed…”

Psalm 10:17-18 says, “You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed…

”Psalm 82:3 says, “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed…”

Psalm 103:6 says, “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.”

I would like to collectively summarize and paraphrase the above passages in today’s vernacular:  “Oppressed, afflicted, fatherless, weak, and poor lives matter.”

It is within the spirit of the Psalms cited above to say that if the Psalms were being written here and now, one of them would likely read, “The Lord declares, ‘Black lives matter!’”

But don’t all lives matter? 

Of course they do. Of course God loves everyone.  (So much so that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.)  But even though God loves everyone, the fact remains that the passages quoted above narrow the focus.  Those passages simply don’t happen to say that God is a refuge for all, or that he defends all, or that he works justice for all.   The raw truth is, that while God loves everyone, God takes sides! 

It is a function of his righteous holiness to do so.  Of course God cares for everyone, but at times, circumstances demand an emphasis or focus on a particular portion of humanity. In principle it is analogous to Jesus’ parable about leaving ninety-nine sheep to find one lost sheep. The point of that story isn’t that the ninety-nine don’t matter, but that the one needed extra attention and focus.

In some cases, the Scripture is explicit and in others it is easy to extrapolate God’s position:  Where there are oppressed and oppressors, God takes the side of the oppressed; where there is conflict between the poor and the well-to-do, God takes the side of the poor; where there are abused and abusers, God is on the side of the abused; where there are exploited and exploiters, God is on the side of the exploited; where there are powerful and powerless, God is on the side of the powerless.

Which brings us to our current time and place.  When it is exposed that a culture has a systemic problem with racism such that, both anecdotally and statistically, it can be shown that a particular demographic minority is being mistreated, abused, and oppressed by the powerful majority, we can easily discern which side God is on.   The soul-searching question to ask yourself is, “Which side am I on?”

An “Essential” Paradox

Christianity is no stranger to paradoxes.  For example:  Jesus is fully God and fully human!  How can both of those propositions be true? It’s a miracle but they are. We are currently faced with a new paradox that I want to address.

I was taken to church from the time I was born.  The importance of Sunday School, Worship, Prayer Meetings, Bible Studies, and other church gatherings was drilled into me.  I was taught that it was essential for the spiritual growth and health of believers.   I was also taught it was essential for evangelizing non-believers.  (Disclaimer: I was taught that church should never be the only means of spiritual growth and evangelism.)  In short, the belief that church is essential became part of me.  It’s in my DNA.  Eventually, I became a Pastor.  I am now one of the ones teaching others that church is essential!

Then came COVID-19.   Based on suggested guidelines from public health officials, on March 15th, my own church board unanimously voted to suspend our gatherings until April 3rd, which we later changed to, “until further notice.”  

Given what I said earlier, it is an understatement to say that making that decision was a hard one. Talk about going against the grain!   Following our self-imposed rule has required discipline and has remained hard.   I have repeatedly wrestled with the questions: “Did we do the right thing? Are we doing the right thing?”    Through study, research, and reflective thinking (all done prayerfully, of course), I am convinced that we did, and are doing, the right thing by suspending our physical gatherings.

Since the beginning of Christianity, wherever Christians are found, they form themselves into local communities (or as I prefer, “families!”) commonly called, churches.  Churches live by a set of blended, complementary, benefits and responsibilities.  Christians who join into fellowship with other Christians give and receive support to and from one another.  They pray for one another and are prayed for by others.  They collectively affirm, send, and support missionaries.  They jointly carry out compassionate ministries.  They give offerings to support ongoing ministries and, when needed, they benefit from these helpful gifts.  They hold one another accountable in both behavior (ethics) and understanding (doctrinal beliefs).   In the New Testament there is absolutely positively no concept of isolated, loner Christians.  Christians ALWAYS join into fellowship with other Christians.  As one unknown Christian writer put it, “There’s no such thing as a Lone Ranger Christian.”  The writer added, “Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto!”  So, yes, churches are essential.

However, in our current context, it must be said that scheduled worship services (and other physical gatherings) can, and should, be temporarily suspended for a few weeks, or even months, in the interest of public health and safety.  We can even say that is essential that we do so.  While such gatherings are important, and ordinarily even prioritized, the church is much more than those gatherings.

Churches around the world with suspended services can still support one another, encourage one another, pray for one another, etc.   We Christian communities still love one another, we’ve just had to adapt the ways we express that love.  Writing about the mandate in Scripture that Christians not give up meeting together, Dr. Roger Hahn wrote, “In the first century when telephones did not exist and letters were difficult and expensive to write, face to face contact was the only way encouragement could be given. It is still the most effective way.”  While we can concede that physical gathering is still the most effective way, we have to admit it is not the only way, especially in a temporary situation. It would be hard to overstate the blessing of digital communication technology during this time.   Churches can still “gather” through videoconferencing, webcasts, various forms of social media, text messaging, and even the old-fashioned phone call.  In short, given communication technology, given the temporary nature of the situation, I believe the church can continue to be the church even with a temporary hiatus on physical gatherings. 

This is especially true given the motivation behind the current suspension of gathering:  namely, public health and safety.  The church is supposed to serve its community.  During a pandemic, one of the ways the church serves its community is by following public health protocols and not gathering.  It is akin to, “going the extra mile.”  That is, it is a sacrifice for us to forego our physical gatherings but we make that sacrifice for the good of both ourselves and everyone else with whom we might have contact.

Yes, it truly is an “essential” paradox! That is, a paradox concerning essentials:

  1. Church is essential.
  2. It is essential that church gatherings be temporarily suspended.

A Big Ask

I am pro-life.  I rarely use that label because there is some baggage with that label from which I prefer to distance myself.  Nevertheless, I am pro-life.  Being truly pro-life means a lot of things.  The most common thing associated with pro-life is anti-abortion.  My view mirrors that of my church’s official view:  “We oppose induced abortion by any means, when used for either personal convenience or popula­tion control.”

As a pro-lifer, I need to admit something:  Ours is a big ask!

There are a myriad of paths that lead a woman to choose abortion.  Trying to account for them all is way beyond the scope of this blog post. So as just one example, I invite you to consider the plight of fictitious, “Erin.”   

Erin is an only child.  Her dad died when she was twelve.  Her relationship with her mom deteriorated throughout her high school years; nowadays they rarely talk.  She is now nineteen, living on her own in an apartment.  She is halfway through her first semester of community college where she is taking two classes.  She dreams of being a guidance counselor because her own high school guidance counselor had proven to be very helpful to her.  She works nearly full-time, but not quite, at a local family restaurant.  Erin had no religious upbringing and was admittedly living a promiscuous lifestyle.  Prompted by her own suspicions, she visited a free clinic where it was confirmed she is about seven weeks pregnant.  She is not in a committed relationship with the father of the unborn child, nor does she want to be.

For the first time in a long time, Erin thought seriously about her future.  If she keeps the child, she will have seven months of pregnancy in front of her with all the health issues and doctor appointments that go along with it.  Then, of course, there is the delivery itself.  She realized that once the baby is born, her life’s path will be forever changed.  Socially, her carefree days of “going out” (when, where, with whomever she chose) would effectively be over because the kind of going out that she enjoyed was not baby-friendly.  She thought about the implications of the added expense of raising a child.  Realistically, she knew she was only barely making ends meet now. What would she do with the extra expenses of a baby? That made her wonder what would happen if she was unable to keep her job.  What if the pregnancy created issues with her schedule and she got fired?  Would she feel strong enough to even do her job?  Then she was back to admitting that even if she could keep her job, it wouldn’t be enough.  She would need to find a better job, or more likely, a second job.  Would that even be possible?  Would she be able to afford to continue college? Even if she could, would she have the time and energy for college while trying to raise a baby?  For work and/or college, how would she be able to find and afford daycare or a babysitter?  It dawned on her that if she couldn’t continue college she would never be a guidance counselor, or any other career. She would likely never find a better job than the one she had now.  She wanted to get married someday but having a baby would make that much more difficult; both in terms of meeting and dating, as well as finding a man who wouldn’t mind that she had a baby by another man. Her thoughts went on and on in this vein.


Then she considered what she believed to be her other main option.  Within a few weeks she could have an abortion and then continue her life as planned.   It wasn’t a great life, but she was enjoying it, she had a plan for improving it, and she was working the plan.  It didn’t take her long to decide that abortion seems to be the best option.

Enter the pro-lifers.  We tell her to keep the child and completely change her life.  Of course, we tell her that she will love the baby and be glad she kept it.  We warn her that if she aborts she will live with regret from now on.  We even tell her that if she will carry the baby to term and really doesn’t want to raise it, she can give it up for adoption and then get back to her life. 

At first, she likes the adoption idea. But then her own belief system enters in. In her own mind, there is a fundamental difference between a seven-week old fetus and a newborn living baby. To Erin, they just aren’t the same. As a result, while she can easily entertain the thoughts of aborting a fetus, she cannot imagine carrying it for nine months, giving birth, then simply giving it away.  Even though some pro-lifers call it “baby killing,” Erin doesn’t see it that way. 

But we pro-lifers keep shouting, “Keep the baby!”

In spite of all the inconvenience, struggle, hardship, lifestyle changes, reduced choices, changes in future opportunities, we pro-lifers ask Erin to keep the child.  Let’s be honest:  It’s a big ask!   Our logic is straightforward: We follow through with the big ask because, in spite of the hardship, we believe it’s the right thing to do.  We simply believe that when you put all the things that are leading her to an abortion on one side of the scale and we put a human being on the other side, the scales tip undeniably toward the human being. 

We believe it’s a justifiable, righteous ask, even though it’s a big ask.  That belief and that logic is part of what it means to be pro-life. I said at the beginning that being pro-life means a lot of things.  Let’s consider one of those other things:   Our response to COVID-19.

The bottom line is, that the requested response is also a big ask.  In ways it is akin to asking an unwed, underemployed, young adult to keep her baby.  There are disruptions, inconveniences, hassles, financial pressures, modified social lives, etc.   Yes, we admit it. It is a big ask!  But shouldn’t we pro-lifers apply the same straightforward belief and logic to this situation.  When we put all that is being asked on one side of the scales and put the lives of the most-at-risk people on the other, as pro-lifers, shouldn’t our belief in the sanctity of human life tip the scales?  Strongly.

There is one big difference, of course.  When we tell Erin (and other women in her situation) not to abort their babies, we do so under no expectation of personal consequences. That is, Erin will face all the implications, not us.  On the other hand, sheltering at home and social distancing, impacts each and every one of us. 

Please tell me that we pro-lifers are willing to practice what we preach.  Tell me that we are willing to pay the price to save lives.  It’s a big ask, I know.

Does God have this?

“God’s got this!”

Have you seen that declaration showing up with regards to COVID-19?  I have.  A lot. Honestly, it makes me a little uncomfortable.  Of course, there is a sense in which this is true, but I think its abrupt and isolated appearance is a little disingenuous because it skips a step or two.  Ultimately, we Christians should all end up there, but not so abruptly and not in an isolated manner.

To explain what I mean, I invite you to observe the Thirteenth Psalm.  In that Psalm, David (the shepherd boy, King, poet) expresses the truth that, “God’s got this,” in a much more poetic way.  Specifically he wrote, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.  I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” (Psalm 13:5-6)    But those two verses are just the final one-third of the Psalm.  That’s all there would have been if David had skipped the step or two I’m talking about.  But he didn’t.  Here’s the Psalm in its entirety:

Psalm 13

1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

5 But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

6 I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.

The majority of this Psalm—the first two-thirds—is an acknowledgement and expression that the current situation stinks and an acknowledgement and expression that so far at least, God doesn’t seem to be doing much about it.

Look again at the first verse.  Asking, “Will you forget forever?” reveals that David felt forgotten.  Asking, “How long will you hide your face from me?” reveals that David had been seeking God, but had been unable to find him. 

In verse two he asks, “How long will my enemy triumph over me?”  That reveals that David felt that he is currently losing the battle.  That is, he wasn’t pretending that he was winning when it was obvious that he wasn’t. 

Up to this point in the Psalms, David definitely is not claiming that, “God’s got this.”  If anything, he was admitting that the evidence indicated that God didn’t have it!  Then in verse three, he began to turn a corner.  “Look on me and answer, Lord my God.  Give light to my eyes or I will sleep in death.”  From there he goes on to declare that if God doesn’t intervene, he will in fact be defeated and his foes will rejoice in his defeat.  It seems as if David is declaring that, God doesn’t have this, and that if God doesn’t take charge soon, all will be lost.

Then and only then does David find faith to fall back on.  Only then does David poetically declare that, “God’s got this,” after all.

But we modern Christians would rather skip verses one through four and jump straight to verses five and six.  We shy away from admitting our struggles, doubts, and yes, even our fears.  Our struggle with that admission is understandable given all the times in Scripture we are told not to fear.  Admitting to fear makes us look weak at best or disobedient at worst. 

Christian leader, Bible teacher, and author, Ajith Fernando, in his book, Jesus Driven Ministry, diagnoses this problem by saying we have, “no theology of groaning.”  He points out that the Bible is full of God’s people’s “groaning” (lamenting and/or complaining, though he prefers the term complaining).  He teaches that it is part of what Paul was talking about in Romans 8:23b where he said, “but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait…”  That is, we have a foretaste of what’s to come with no sickness and sorrow, etc., but we don’t have it yet.  Currently, we still face all kinds of troubles in this world just as Jesus said we would (John 16:33).

In the book referenced above, Fernando quotes Biblical scholar, Chris Wright summarizing the pattern of Biblical laments.  I share it here because I love the way it so closely parallels the Thirteenth Psalm that we’ve been looking at:  “God, I am hurting; and, God, everyone else is laughing.  And, God, You are not helping very much either; and how long is it going to go on?”  Pure honesty.

My point is this:  When faced with trials, if David didn’t jump straight to, “God’s got this,” maybe we shouldn’t either.   If David first “groaned,” (lamented and complained about the situation) maybe we should too.  Maybe, like David, when we are in the midst of a severe trial we should admit that we are in the midst of a severe trial rather than pretending that all is well and that we aren’t bothered.  Maybe when it feels like God isn’t doing anything about it, we should admit that it feels that way.  Maybe when it dawns on us that if God doesn’t act then all is lost, we should admit that we need God to act rather than pretending that he already has.  Maybe then and only then, after admitting and expressing those things should we declare, “God’s got this.”

“God’s got this,” is where all God’s people should end up but let’s not pretend we all start there.  With that in mind, here is my “Psalm” for our current circumstance.  (I have “Psalm” in quotes because I am no poet!)

God, how long is this going to continue?  COVID-19 is ravaging the world and the Church and your people are not immune; not to the disease and not to its wake.  We, too, have friends and loved ones that have died, are dying, or are sick.  We, too, are facing domino-effect consequences including financial, social, and emotional stresses.  To top it all off, even within the ranks of your own people there is a great divide over the appropriate response to this.  We have come to realize that if you don’t intervene, we are lost…  But we know you.  We have history with you.  We trust you.  Though we can’t see it just yet, we know, O Lord, that you’ve got this!  Praise your name, thank you and amen.