by | May 26, 2020

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
     I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in princes,
    in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
    on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
    who executes justice for the oppressed;
    who gives food to the hungry.

Psalm 146:1-7

Last week I mentioned the challenge of attempting to follow the guidance from multiple levels of government and public health officials as they learn about the Coronavirus, and apply their guidance to our communities of faith. This last Friday, the President of the United States added his voice to the discussion about worship by asserting that governors do not have the right to prohibit in-person worship gatherings.

Of course, by the same token the President does not have the right to force churches to participate in a style of worship that would endanger not only members, but our neighbors with whom we are in relationship. We enjoy the rights of freedom of religion, which means that our churches decide for themselves how to practice their faith. Most of our churches have continued in worship in new, creative ways—ways that are not only faithful, but enlightening and illustrative of how our old ways of worship may have been lacking. It’s as if we had an instant Reformation, a revolution of evangelism that showed us that the Holy Spirit is very much alive and powerful, enabling our pastors and church leaders to adapt to sudden changes that we never anticipated.

Not that it’s been easy! A few days ago, I found myself fantasizing how easy it would be to be able to walk into a sanctuary, get behind a microphone in a pulpit, and preach just like before. I recently heard that some church members have somehow, inexplicably, assumed that because a pastor is preaching on- line, their work was somehow greatly lessened. Nothing can be further from the truth. I have been amazed how our pastors sprung into action, fighting their own fears and anxieties about the uncertainty of the pandemic in order to recreate their church’s worship life, pastoral care system, and governance and church leadership processes overnight. In fact, before President Trump’s comments on Friday, I was set to write about the fear that many denominational church leaders share that our pastors will “crash” under this pressure. I was ready to recommend two short but insightful articles for pastors and those who love (or wonder about) them. To keep this reflection short and focused, I’m putting notes on this topic in a separate column called “Coronavirus Survival Guide for Pastors.”

Also, I have heard from a few of our retired pastors that they have grown weary of virtual worship. The sad thing is that even if in-person worship is reinstated, the churches are being encouraged to continue to provide virtual worship because it will still be considered unsafe for certain people, including retirees, to come into the sanctuary for worship.  In fact, just to be clear, we are posting the CDC’s listing of “people at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19”—and honestly I would not be surprised if the people who qualify constitute a majority of our membership! So I am grateful that we have creative and sensitive pastors who continue to share ideas on how to offer worship that is inclusive and meaningful to members whether they are at home or in the sanctuary.

However we worship, in our tradition it is the session of each congregation that guides the worship life of a church. But they do not do this in a vacuum. The Presbytery is expected to educate and guide sessions in their oversight of worship, of course the pastor is a Teaching Elder who offers wisdom and insight to the conversation, and we have the Directory for Worship which offers direction on how we Presbyterians understand and plan for worship. The Directory is rooted in Scripture, of course, as well as the Book of Confessions, which is the primary part of the Constitution of the PC(USA).

If you don’t want to read the latest version of the Constitution, or chase after the various public health orders, I have attempted to integrate the relevant guidelines and summarize them in a draft of a set of guidelines for San Gabriel Presbytery churches as you consider the requirements for opening up in- person worship. Please take a look and give me feedback, which can be used as the Presbytery leadership attempts to develop more formal guidelines, hopefully by the beginning of June.

My hope is that as sessions discern their future worship life, they do not forget the lessons learned in this forced experiment in worship that transcends buildings. To paraphrase an ecumenical leader, “Our faith is essential. Our buildings are not.” We have always asserted that the church is not the building, and worship can happen in all places, for wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, Jesus is among us. In fact, I have recently been talking with folks about how this pandemic has brought worship back into our homes, breaking down the artificial division between our public faith, neatly compartmentalized away from our family life into one particular hour, in a separate building, with a professional worship leader, often with the children sent to a different space.

However we worship, wherever we worship, may we always remember the most important aspects of worship: to glorify God, to build up the church as the body of Christ, and to feel the free winds of the Holy Spirit that reaches all of God’s children, whether or not they are able to enter our church buildings. May our contemplation on the Word strengthen us to be Christ’s hands and heart on earth, not for our sakes, but for the people crying out for salvation.

Because we consider worship to be the work of the people, our Presbytery meetings are always set in the context of worship. So I look forward to worshiping with you, via Zoom, this Saturday.

Always connected in the Spirit,