Sing to Your Soul

These days we find ourselves locked at home, physically disconnected from friends, family, and community. It’s been difficult. Challenging. Our work is strained. Our relationships are tested. We’re managing — or at least trying to. We’re making the best of our circumstances.

But Sunday Worship is the time for the church — even if we’re scattered on Zoom — to reset. We gather to realign ourselves to the truth of the Gospel when all week long we may have aligned ourselves with other goals: scarcity, loneliness, helplessness. But one thing we lose in this day of online virtual worship services is the real feel of the community encouraging one another in the Gospel. This is especially apparent when we gather to — online — to sing.

How easy it is to watch the singing on the screen rather than participate.

It might feel awkward to sing in our apartments, especially if we’re just one of a handful of voices — every out-of-tune note or early-entrance-become-solo clearly heard by all. Maybe we think it’s easier just to listen to those in the call singing. But don’t give into that. Sing!

Surely, I can remind you, “God cares about it.” Or I can tell those of you who are parents, “Your children are watching and learning about worship from your example.” These are both true. But I’d put forward to you that…

Your soul is listening.

There’s a well known refrain in the psalms (scattered throughout Psalms 42 and 43) that goes like this:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

Here the psalmist is ministering to his soul. This part of us is really all of us. It is in our soul — our very being — that we are united with Christ. But our souls are “prone to wander” as the hymns put it. And now, when all is stripped away from daily routine, our souls are raw. Every grim announcement and every sliver of hope tugs our souls this way and that; they toss us to and fro in the stormy waves of our present situation.

So as we gather tomorrow to worship; resist the temptation to sit idly and watch. Sing! Remind your soul where our hope lies. Remind your soul that even if all gives way, there is a sure Anchor that keeps us steady in the waves. It’s the Anchor that we can never lose because He holds onto us.

Sing! So your soul will not despair.

Sing! They your soul may know the Hope that keeps us even now.


Praying in distress

Church,

During times of distress and trial we are called to pray. Prayer is our strong tether to the one who is sovereign and keeps all things in order when everything around us feels like chaos. Today I reflected on the following verses from scripture (bolded text, mine):

Psalm 18:1–6

I love you, O LORD, my strength.
The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies.

The cords of death encompassed me;
the torrents of destruction assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me.

In my distress I called upon the LORD;
to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.

and Exodus 2:23–24

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.

During these times we may feel like we’re at home… alone… disconnected from others and disconnected from God. I expect when the novelty of video-chatting wears off, we’re going to desire real connection deep in our bones. We’ll begin to recognize what a state we’re in… and we’ll start crying out… and we’ll wonder if anyone’s listening.

Scripture tells us over and over that God is not deaf to our cries. The model from scripture calls us to cry out for God to save. It’s possible we may feel comfortable in our homes and we may think, “I’m fine even while the world is in chaos outside.” But this is a farce.

If there’s anything our current situation has taught us, it’s that we’re more connected than ever. The plight of our neighbors is intimately connected to our own. We cannot “look out for number one” at the expense of our neighbors. So church, we are called to pray.

Pray for our health care professionals that are being swamped right now with work. They are our soldiers on the front lines putting themselves at great risk for the sake of the public. From what I hear from my contacts, they are tired, stressed, and in need of support and prayer.

Pray for our civic leaders who are having to make extremely difficult decisions regarding the welfare of the city. Though we are often quick to criticize, most of us do not bear the weight of responsibility that our leaders face. They need wisdom. Let us pray that God would give our leaders wisdom to know how to navigate the storm we find ourselves in.

Pray for your friends and neighbors. Many of us are anxious and fearful of what’s to come. No matter how many reassuring words we hear, the unrest in our stomachs seems unending. Pray for strength and boldness to overcome fear and panic. Pray also for those who are sick or most at-risk. They are all around us; some are fighting for life right now. God, help us now.

El Roi, the “God who sees,” look upon the distress of your people and rise to action. We need you now more than ever. As our daily comforts are stripped away, help us turn to you and rest in you. Help us to know in our hearts, not just in our heads, that you are the Sovereign Lord. Have mercy upon us. Amen.


Worship Formation During Covid-19

Like many congregations in our city, our church leadership has been evaluating what to do for Sunday Service.

Should we cancel service?

Should we “not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing?”

Maybe divide up into small house churches and give house leaders an adapted service to lead!

Maybe just do a live stream!

People who are very vocal on the matter seem to have already arrived at the best solution: “We should definitely cancel.” “Let’s continue to meet in faith! (with some precautions of course!)” “Online would be best. Imagine not having to find parking!”

I don’t know if they’re able to be so vocal because they’ve already had endless thorough discussions and I’m only seeing the result of hours of discussion and meetings. But I know whatever our church ends up doing (and at the moment, it seems like we’ll do a live-streamed minimal service), the concerns underneath still linger for me.

What is our public witness?

No matter what we decide, there is the ever present public witness of the church on display. While the news and news feeds are rampant with misinformation and fear-mongering, how does the church witness to the hope of the gospel? Do we feed into the fear, throwing off all other concerns “just to be on the safe side?” When fear and panic set in, most of us automatically go into self-preservation mode. We stock up on rice and toilet paper. We ignore those in need because we see our own needs more dire than they really are. We “pass by on the other side” to avoid injury to ourselves.

I am not advocating that we mindlessly and foolishly run headfirst into dangerous situations; we are not called to seek danger — we are not called to be stupid. But what does it mean for us in this period of social upheaval to live for others? What does it mean to lay down our lives for our friends and neighbors?

In the early church, there were two great epidemics — one immediately after the other — that wiped out a large portion of the population. While there was mass panic and flight from the city centers, Christians stayed behind to care for the sick and the poor. Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, one of the early church fathers who lived through this period, praised the efforts of those Christians, many who died caring for others:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.

This was in stark contrast to how “the heathen” responded to the outbreak. Dionysius also wrote,

The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.

This powerful witness lingered in the hearts and minds of the public.

This powerful witness lingered in the hearts and minds of the public. Even when Emperor Julian (commonly known as Julian the Apostate) tried to squash out the faith by providing alternate services to the poor to serve the gods, he wrote of his frustration with “the Galileans,” being unable to counter their witness:

Those impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into the agapae, they attract them… Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity… See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods.”

I hope that we can rise to the challenge to be the Church during these times. While we must be cautious, may our caution not hinder our witness. We do not want to be the foolish congregation that further spreads the contagion and endangers our neighbors. But we are also called to live by faith, rather than by fear. It is my hope that the Gospel will compel us to live our faith before others that all will see and know Christ.

Jesus, help us. Give us wisdom to discern and act. There is much confusion and anxiety; we confess our need for you to lead and direct us. Give us hearts that are willing to follow even into the places where we are spent for the sake of others. Help us to follow you in your death and resurrection that we may “shine [like stars] as lights in the world.”

How are we being formed by the new normal?

Another great concern is how our congregation will readjust to the new normal. If we’re doing an “online service” how will this affect the weekly and daily life patterns of our congregation? We are habitual creatures, forming habits and being formed by habits all the time. How can we offer guidance when the seeming “convenience” of WFH and online worship leave a vacuum of order in our schedules?

Can an online worship service be a manifestation of the church gathered? I’m not sure. I am not saying that it can’t happen; I’m just saying that a recorded service (the default for most online services) is a poor substitute for the church — if a substitute at all. If the aim is merely making sure our members get some good teaching, we could just send them some podcasts, or a YouTube playlist and be done with it. There are times when we reduce corporate worship to theology consumption (often via sermon); this is especially true in our tradition that tends to value knowledge, systematics, and education over wisdom, nuance, and practice. The former you can get on your own, the latter requires relationship.

I’ve seen this pattern repeatedly in my time with the church. Meetings merely become venues to get information and get on with our lives and respective ministries rather than opportunities to practice love and fellowship with others. Growing up with a fairly conservative Christian upbringing, the question often posed upon church gatherings is what makes Christian fellowship different from a mere social gathering? And the glib answer usually involves some form of Christian instruction or practice like a devotional sharing or prayer. But I’ve witnessed an issue that’s equally concerning from the other end: people who go to meetings (that are full of Jesus-mentions and theological teaching) but these people are there to get quick answers and logistical instructions without recognizing other humans in the room who need fellowship — social relational connection — and without recognizing that they themselves are humans that need fellowship.

The issue of getting people to recognize the corporate body of believers — the people, the community —in the existing in-person Sunday service is hard already. An online service (as I currently imagine it to be) would be even harder. In our culture, convenience and efficiency are highly esteemed, but there is nothing convenient or efficient about the gathering of people. The messiness of the church gathered resists efficiency; efficiency doesn’t build relationship. You never want to get to know someone who is always in a rush to be somewhere else or do something else. The mystery of the Gospel is manifest in the church gathered (or the “hermeneutic of the Gospel” as I am fond of quoting from Newbigin).

The challenge for us in this interim period is to work out a way for the church to be expressed while we maintain “social distancing.” I have no idea how. One day when we have Ready Player One virtual halo worlds, maybe that would be more straight forward, but that’s not today. The longer we do this compromised worship service, the more we will be seduced by the convenience of “doing church” from the comfort of our homes. For some (not all) I suspect it may be hard to go back. New patterns will form and habits will undoubtedly set in. Just last month I left for a trip with my family for a little over a week. How easy it was for my weekly rhythms to be completely lost when I got back.

Holy Spirit, who lives and breathes in us, we ask you to breathe into your people as we are scattered about our city. Stir in us a longing for one another every time we meet. Give us love for people. Release us from selfishness. Give us discipline to form and develop habits that form us more and more in the image of Christ.