by | Jul 9, 2020

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Matthew 11:28

This last weekend was, of course, 4th of July, and it seemed different than just about any other 4th of July. This weekend was marked by several massive outbreaks of COVID-19 around the nation, dozens of shootings (including some that killed children), the beginning shots of a bitter political campaign, and few actual fireworks. It seems that only my dog enjoyed the weekend, since she’s not bothered by national news anywhere near as much as fireworks.

In California, the surge in COVID-19 cases has resulted in stricter guidelines for gatherings, including worship services. While the state continues to prohibit interaction between children from different households, and there is a more general requirement to wear masks all the time when in public, indoors or outdoors, there is now a strict prohibition of all singing in worship:

Discontinue singing (in rehearsals, services, etc.), chanting, and other practices and performances where there is increased likelihood for transmission from contaminated exhaled droplets.

Consider practicing these activities through alternative methods (such as internet streaming) that ensure individual congregation members perform these activities separately in their own homes. (emphasis from original document)

In response to this, the County of Los Angeles held a telebriefing to give their updated protocol in order to comply with the State guidelines. This briefing was held on Thursday, July 2, with a promise that the written update would be posted on the County website. In the briefing, the County Health Officer, Dr. Muntu Davis, gave very specific guidelines, stating that there is to be no Bible study, Sunday School, or youth groups, and no singing or “group recitation.” Several church leaders attempted to see where there might be some flexibility, and Dr. Davis was more strict than in prior briefings. At one point, one pastor said “so we can walk into church, and be very quiet, and then walk out” and he said, essentially, yes.

The one improvement is that the State figured out that funerals (and the County added weddings, apparently) should be treated the same as other worship services.

At the briefing I personally pointed out that the update currently residing on the website, dated June 29, differed when it came to singing, and made no mention of Bible study, youth groups, or Sunday School. He said that the new update would be posted, and would address these activities.

Over the weekend I kept checking to see when the update would be posted, but it never showed up. A colleague from another presbytery contacted me to see if I had access to it but I didn’t. She ended up sending me the revision, which she received from a Methodist pastor in San Pedro, who got it from a staffer for one of the County Supervisors. I was quite frustrated to read it, because it is not very clear about activities that usually surround worship, though the State guidelines speak to “children.” If you want to hear a recording of the County briefing, it is available for a while by calling 1-866-207-1041, then keying in the access code 6854355#. The new protocol can be accessed here—but I’m still not 100% certain about this update, since I received it through an unofficial route.

All of this makes me very tired. Our pastors have expressed the burden of attempting to guide their congregations through these turbulent waters, as every day we learn new things about this pandemic. Regional administrators are burdened by attempting to track and transmit changes from the community.

Even the County Health Officer sounded burdened by attempting to comply with State guidelines, some of which he doesn’t hear about any sooner than the public. And we are all burdened by the sense that there is no foreseeable end to this time of isolation and uncertainty.

It is at times like this when we are comforted by familiar promises from the Bible such as Jesus saying, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Honestly, I have always been a little mystified by this image, since I have never considered a “yoke” to be light. But in the context of this passage, we find that Jesus puts a gracious spin on the work of the world, and of the church. He notes how the leaders scorned him for partying with his friends, and he allowed his disciples to pluck grain on the sabbath, showing how God said “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” through the prophet Hosea (Hosea 6:6).

I have noticed that the work of the Lord can be more joyful and uplifting than what we might expect. For instance, I had a wonderful time recording a sermon for First Presbyterian Church Altadena, as they have said farewell to pastor Mark Buchanan, who is retiring from pastoral service. The church always had a strong musical tradition and creative members, and I witnessed this in the worship leaders. I was able to use the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program’s virtual choir from around the nation and the world singing “This Is My Song,” a hymn that makes me cry, because through all that we are, and all that we are not yet, I do love this nation, this land of my birth, and the hymn enlarges my heart when I am reminded that “other hearts in other lands are beating, with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.”

I know if you look around, you will see ways that Jesus is making your burden light—or perhaps you have not yet given up your own yoke, to take on that which God has fashioned. May we virtually, collectively, carry on the burden of God’s mission, with eating and drinking, praying and singing—and let us find ways to do so, safely!

In Christ’s love,