From the Pastor
“Life in Plague Times”
These have been difficult and trying days for us all. I’m sorry I haven’t communicated more to you, but it’s been challenging gathering my thoughts, which honestly, change from day to day on all of this. Of the thoughts that have remained consistent the first is “Wow! I can’t believe this is happening!” I never thought I’d see churches ordered to cease and desist actual Divine Service. It has literally never happened in American history, to the best of my knowledge—certainly not na-tionwide, compulsory, as it is now. We’ve seen far more virulent and deadly epidemics like Span-ish Flu 1918-19, polio, TB, without the mandatory closing of churches. There’ve been worse flu epidemics that did not lead to anything like this: MERS and SARS come to mind.
Thus, my second thought: these draconian remedies seem all out of proportion to the actual threat. CDC says 100,000-240,000 potential deaths are possible from this coronavirus over 18 months. Seasonal flu can easily account 60,000 deaths in a six month period which, apples to apples, is right in the coronavirus range, yet we don’t shutter the economy and churches because of it. Something doesn’t add up here!
Even in Bubonic Plague in the middle ages, Luther and other Christians kept churches open. In fact, they were, in Wittenberg in 1527, busier than ever in plague times! Even though they knew this might increase the risk of infection, the power, comfort, and protection derived from the reception of Christ’s Word and Sacrament far outweighed that slight risk for them, as I’ve written before on Luther’s 1527 letter “May Christians Flee A Deadly Plague” V. 43, Luther’s Works. Only here, in the public Word and Sacrament, is made available the best, divine, most powerful reme-dy against death and the fear of death (the latter being for Christians, as for our Lord, the bigger problem!).
Third thought: at OSLC we’ve been strictly social distancing, minimizing contact, far more dili-gently and effectively than what I see going on in the grocery store, Jersey Mike’s, or the golf course. With the size of our sanctuary, we could have regular Divine Service with 120 people in each service and still have far more effective social distancing than the Glenwood Village Harris Teeter has. A friend in Washington D.C. told me his local stores are policed, and the officers ad-mit a certain number at a time in proportion to the square footage of the place and inside they po-lice effective social distancing and contact limiting strategies. Wouldn’t it be more fair if such poli-cies were applied uniformly, nationwide, to churches as well as liquor stores? Hmm?
Fourth thought: where’s the outrage? Where are the protests, lawsuits? I’ve seen thoughtful articles in the New Yorker, Atlantic, First Things, New York Times, where people of all political and religious stripes have voiced these 1st amendment, constitutional, and social fabric con-cerns. If you told me churches could be shuttered for at least a month (likely far longer) without any massive civil uprising, I would have said you were nuts. Obviously I was wrong. This is very disturbing to me.
Fifth thought: someone asked me “Well, why don’t you just live-stream the service? And we’ll worship online! But Lutherans can’t worship online—only in person. Perhaps, if like some re-formed groups, we were only disseminating information, online would be fine. But it is not infor-mation about Christ that saves us. It is Christ Himself—and Jesus promises to be Really Present with all His gifts only by the actual, in-person Word and Sacrament ministry of the living pastors He makes His voice, hands, feet. This is why, in Acts 5, when the Apostles were ordered to cease and desist the public ministry of Word and Sacrament, they did not say “OK, we’ll just write letters instead…” but rather “No. We must obey God rather than men.” Mediated means are fine, but they aren’t substitutes for the actual Divine Service! Yes, Paul wrote letters to Corinth—but, he also appointed pastors, and Paul himself visited Corinth in person to keep them on the Way. Jesus didn’t write a letter; He sent me to you.… (OK, the Super Bowl champ goes last in the draft. Tough on the team, great for the QB 🙂
Sixth thought: while we as individuals can get along for a while—weeks, maybe months, without the public ministry of Word and Sacrament as Christ ordained it, such fasting’s never good for any of us, but always spiritually dangerous, for all of us. It’s like slowly starving to death, and some will hold out longer than others but all will suc-cumb eventually and be lost… some sooner than others. The Church lives by the pub-lic means of grace. Over 30 years at this parish ministry thing I have learned that it on-ly takes a few weeks away from church for some people to fall away permanently and get lost from the Church forever. It’s been an unpleasant surprise to me that, sometimes, the people I thought strongest fall away the quickest, and those I thought weakest actually shine brightest under tempest and storm. So I just can’t discern who’s at greatest risk.
Seventh and final thought: deprived of our right to freely exercise our faith in peace-ful public assemblies—which we’d always enjoyed as Americans until the last couple weeks!—we are left in a disastrous state. I don’t see any great choices here—just diffi-cult ones, all of which have grave downsides. Any course of action now open to us causes harm to the social fabric, or the church, or both, it seems to me. I’m not sure what the least damaging course is. My mind changes almost as much as the particu-lars of the government bans! I know the church as a whole can’t survive without the public, weekly Divine Service. I know that for short times, individuals can make it, but that it weakens even the strongest, even if it’s just for a week or two. I know, as a pas-tor, I can’t in good conscience turn away any who come to the Lord’s House. None of this is meant to disparage in any way those who have other opinions and make other choices. I’m called to be pastor to the whole flock of OSLC and I plan to do my utmost to serve you all faithfully. So if you have needs, concerns, questions, just call. I’m here to answer and here to help as best as Christ allows me… I pray for you all and covet your prayers for me.
As Dr. Luther said at Worms: God will help us. Amen.
-Kevin W Martin