To Be Or Not To Be (together)

To open up the country and return to business and worship as usual or not -- this question has been on your pastor's mind.  

As a partner in a commercial business, I see how the need for social distancing is affecting our economy.  It is a legitimate concern, and one I feel as I wonder (and if I'm honest — worry) about nearly every day now.  What if the economy collapses and the value of my commercial assets drop as precipitously as the markets have fallen?

As pastor I feel a responsibility to love and protect those people God has entrusted to my care.  How do I (we) balance the injury of being separated from one another with the peril of returning to public worship too soon?  If our first duty is to "do no harm," what is the calculation we need as we chose between two less than ideal options?

I have a friend in Atlanta with whom I have been in dialogue.  When I heard this week that the governor of Georgia was going to open up businesses and houses of worship for public gathering by tomorrow (Friday April 24) I wrote to my friend to ask what she thought.
The Presbytery of Greater Atlanta’s Executive Presbyter (Rev. Aisha Brooks-Lytle) had just issued a pastoral letter to the churches in the presbytery.  My friend sent me a copy of her letter and here is a small portion of it.
"The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth to encourage them in their midst of differences on whether or not it was a good idea to participate in a practice that was offensive to some and not a big deal to others. He offers a prophetic word that holds true for us as we strive to be a prophetic witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul reminds us that "'All things are lawful', but not all things are beneficial. 'All things are lawful', but not all things build up" (1 Corinthians 10:23). Friends, it may be lawful to begin to open the doors of the church, but it is not beneficial for churches to open at this time when we think of those who could be put in harm's way due to the coronavirus."
This, for your pastor, is the core of the question.  Is my desire for liberty placing others at risk?  Rev. Brooks-Lytle might have also cited an early chapter in First Corinthians.  In Paul's day the argument was over the practice of eating meat that had been offered to idols.  For some this felt like a really big deal.  Seeing fellow Christians eating the meat was a significant stumbling-block both to their faith and to the health and wholeness of the community of Christians in the region.  For others, eating meat offered to idols was no problem at all and there were feelings of resentment directed at those who expected them to curb their liberty to eat as they pleased in order to ease the conscience of others.  This is what Paul writes to them in the midst of their bitter disagreement:
First Corinthians [NRSV] 8:4   Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "no idol in the world really exists," and that "there is no God but one."  5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth--as in fact there are many gods and many lords--  6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

7   It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.  8 "Food will not bring us close to God." We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.  9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.  10 For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols?  11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.  12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.  13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
Paul, in essence, says that the path of faithful discipleship is to yield our individual rights in order to show love and consideration for the other — even when we think that is an inconvenience, and even when we judge that it is something unnecessary.  We yield in deference to the needs of the other, not because they are more important than we are, but because our yielding is a way of living into the life to which Christ invites us — a life of more-or-less constant self-sacrifice out of love for the other.

The Session at First Presbyterian Church has now wrestled with the question of when to return to public gatherings three times.  We will have to wrestle with this yet more times I'll wager.  Thus far our decisions have been made after careful consideration of guidance from medical professionals.  At present the CDC, WHO, and every other credible source of medical guidance is inclined to counsel caution about any public gatherings.  That has made our decision-making easier.  But it may be that, at some point, we will decide to err on the side of caution when there is a plausible case for deciding to re-unite.  If and when that time comes I imagine that we will all have the first letter to the Corinthians in mind.

This yielding is meant to be mutual.  It is meant to be a dance which goes in both directions.  That said, however, the Bible is consistent in its guidance that:
†  when we have those who are strong and those who are weak to consider;  
† when we have some who are privileged and others who are marginalized;
† when we have some who have easy access to affordable and effective healthcare and others who have little or no access to care they can afford . . .  it is always the strong who are asked to yield to the weak; the rich to yield to the poor; the healthy who are to yield to the sick; the resilient who are to yield to the needs of the vulnerable.

I miss all of you more than you know.  I am so impatient to be back together with one another -- but I will not be inclined to support our gathering until I am convinced that we have taken First Corinthians to heart and have committed ourselves to doing what is best for everyone . . . but especially those who are most at risk.

These are trying times.  And yet, I see all around me signs of the in-breaking of God's Kingdom.  I see people making special efforts to care for one another, to get back in touch, to be sure no one is truly alone.  These things make my heart glad, even as I day-dream about a time when we can gather again in Christian fellowship - face to face and hand to hand.

Your friend and pastor,

Paul Lang