The local webcast service tomorrow will be at 11:30 am via GoToMeeting. We will also have two services on Sunday for Pentecost, with the first beginning at 11:30 am (the second will begin about 1 hour after the conclusion of the first service). Please contact me if you need the login information!
Pentecost, Risk and a Sound Mind
Pentecost calls our attention back to the founding of God's Church in Acts 2 and the subsequent trials faced by the first believers. One powerful and memorable occasion of the early Church was when, after having been arrested once for preaching the gospel in Jesus' name, the apostles were charged not to do so again and answered, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). At that very moment, they went on to proclaim the truth of Jesus' role as Messiah, His resurrection and power to forgive sin, and concluded by saying "we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him" (verse 32).
What a profound and valiant statement - "we ought to obey God rather than men." We should all have such a heart and attitude!
We've had our own unique set of trials lately. As the COVID-19 outbreak in our region continues to decline, various state and local regulations have been relaxed that will allow us to begin meeting again for services. Planning is underway for when and how to do so safely for Richmond, Northern Virginia and Columbia, and announcements will be made as soon as our plans are finalized!
But are we tempted to think that the Church has not lived up to the example of the apostles by failing to meet over the last few months? Are we exalting the government over God?
Personally, I'm thankful for the fact that the United Church of God suspended services throughout the entire United States before it was mandatory, lest anyone should perceive it differently. No government prevented us from meeting at that time, but the Church chose not to based on the risk we perceived to our congregations. Likewise, in all 3 congregations I pastor, our local leaders have not chosen to meet right away as restrictions have been relaxed locally. That's because our decisions are based on putting the safety of our members first. Our compliance with government orders is secondary to that, and doing so is not a matter of lacking faith or putting the commandments of men over the commandment of God - it is about ensuring that we do not put our church family at an unacceptable risk.
How do we measure risk? Meeting in person was always a risk - it was a risk before COVID-19 and will remain a risk. That risk CANNOT be eliminated down to zero. Traffic deaths, as well as deaths from other causes, are down substantially throughout the country due to people staying at home. We can gain some perspective on our current situation by thinking about how we treat the normal risk of driving.
Every time we drive to services, we accept the risk of automobile accidents as necessary and tolerable. We can reduce our personal risk when driving by being attentive, driving defensively or even choosing not to drive - indeed, there are times when it's wise NOT to drive to services, and we usually cancel services at least once each winter due to snow and ice for this reason.
Unfortunately, the level of threat posed by coronavirus is one that was completely unknown when this began and is still difficult to quantify even in hindsight - though it is becoming more clear as the data are analyzed. One basic fact we can rely on is that the risk posed by any illness is proportional to the number of people infected with it. Thankfully, that number has been going down throughout Virginia and Maryland, as evidenced by the decreasing number of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID - which is great news! This means that the risk of being infected in a public gathering is also going down from what it was a few weeks ago.
As Pentecost approaches this Sunday, let's carefully search whether we truly rely on the Spirit of God - "for God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:7).
The power of God has helped us to endure all of our present trials, including our continual battle against sin. The love of God is what continues to bind us together even as we remain physically apart, stirring us in obedience to God as well as genuine affection and concern for one another. And a sound mind is what must guide our path forward - not giving in to a "spirit of fear," but being balanced and seeking God's wisdom in all things.
Returning to services does not mean that there is no risk in doing so, but neither does it mean that we should be reckless. Bad weather may mean staying home for some but not others - each knows their own situation, and it is not for us to judge one another. Other times, it may mean driving more slowly and carefully than normal, and this is how I view any restrictions that we may endure when we come together in worship in the coming weeks.
Our return to normal will need to be gradual. It will involve temporary inconveniences in how we interact with each other as well as changes to how we utilize the space we meet in. We should all strive to be patient and understanding with one another and with this process, letting the love of God work in us.
As God gave the Spirit to the early Church to endure every kind of trial, let us rely on it for the present time! Together, by the power of God, by love and a sound mind granted by His Spirit, we are going to overcome fear as we come out of this. As we celebrate Pentecost this year, let us all yield ourselves to the Spirit of God and follow as it leads!
My family and I will be with you on the webcasts tomorrow and Sunday, longing to be with you in person. May God bless you all and give you peace on His Sabbath and Holy Day!