Peace in the Pandemic

Pastor Michael Bowman

Is it Acceptable to Cancel Worship?

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That’s a good question, one that Christians and Elders all over the country (and the world) are trying to answer right now. I am not a doctor, so I will not be going into the medical details surrounding the CoronaVirus. I am not a member of the Civil Government, so I will not be dealing with that aspect of the situation either. There is obviously massive debate about what is going to happen and what needs to happen in regards to Covid-19. I am a Pastor, and I want to help you think Biblically about all of life, including global pandemics. Practically, one of the first things we have to deal with is whether or not the church should still be meeting for corporate worship.

To start, you need to understand that there is not an easy answer. In our highly divided times, there are people all around you, likely on both sides of the issue, that tell you it’s all very obvious what should be done. It’s not. That simply isn’t true. If you think it’s an easy decision, then you need to keep thinking. The reality is that we are finite people, and we have a finite amount of information. We have to deal with what we do know. We don’t have God’s perfect view on the situation so we have to use what he has revealed to us in order to chart a course in the fog. So when the officers of your church or any other church make a decision contrary to what you would make, be gracious. The truth is that it can both be acceptable to cancel worship services and to continue holding them.

If you are a member of Christ Covenant Church, you are hopefully already aware that the Elders have decided to suspend all corporate gatherings, including worship, for the next three Sundays. I suspect that the vast majority of us have a very difficult time with the idea of not meeting together in corporate worship. I was almost in tears speaking with my wife about what it will look like to not see each one of you on the Lord’s Day for 3 weeks. I want to reassure you that the decision was not made lightly. Our Elders are probably the least likely of any men I have known to cancel a church service. However, that is the decision that we made. What I want to do now is give you some of the Biblical rationale for why that is acceptable in the hopes that your own conscience can be at ease. Here are 3 reasons that you can be at peace with the decision to cancel corporate worship at this time:

1. Submission to the Civil Magistrates

It has been recommended by Civil Officials that there not be gatherings of more than 10 people at this time. As Christians, we are called to be in subjection to the civil magistrate (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17; WCF 23). That doesn’t mean that we obey everything that Governors or Presidents tell us to do. For instance, if Governor Evers or President Trump asked us to close our worship services because Christianity was not acceptable to them or in any other way tried to hinder our worship of God, we would have a duty to resist such orders. When the Apostles were told by rulers not to keep preaching the gospel, they said they would obey God and not man (Acts 4:5-22). 

In the current situation, these recommendations (not commands) have been made, as far as we can tell, to defend the public health and not to hinder worship. That being the case, it seems well within the Biblical authority of the civil magistrate to do such a thing. Again, being Christians doesn’t mean you have to submit to anything the Civil Government tells you. You don’t have to obey something that is unlawful or unbiblical. But these authorities have been given, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, for “(God’s) glory and the public good” (Ch. 23:1). The Government should not interfere with the church when she does what God has commanded in his Word, neither should the church disregard the Government when in its proper place. 

2. Submission to the Officers of the Church

More important to the topic at hand is submission to the officers of the church (Heb. 13:17).  God has given his church leaders to bear responsibility for the people, being those who will give an account, and so it is imperative for you to submit yourself to them and trust them. Once again this doesn’t mean that you do something against the law of God or against conscience. However, you can trust that God will bless your decision to trust the leadership of the church. God is not a perfectionist. It was his decision to establish in the world a sinful institution, led by sinful men, filled with sinful people. He knows that mistakes will be made, and yet that was still his plan. So if your conscience is uneasy missing corporate worship, know that those who have the authority to suspend such a service have done so for your good and will be the ones to give an account for such a decision before the Great Shepherd. 

3. Love of Neighbor

Finally the Lord Jesus summed up the whole law in two commands, “You shall love the Lord your God… You shall love your neighbor as yourself…” (Matt. 22:37-40). When the Bible speaks of love, it doesn’t mean simply a passion or feeling. It doesn’t mean you should have nice thoughts about your neighbor. Love is first of all an action. You don’t feel love as much as you do love. Paul says, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14). The whole law, that includes the Sabbath laws. 

This is an opportunity for us to put the love of our neighbors on display. The Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. It seems, from what we know, that by suspending corporate worship for a time we may be sparing our neighbors significant suffering. That may not be a guarantee, we are still charting a course in the fog, but it seemed a reasonable sacrifice for the time being. 

Moving forward, we don’t know what the future holds, but our God does. We have His Word, His Spirit and the Wisdom that he has given us. By his grace we want to live faithful lives in this uncertain time. Who knows, perhaps he has prepared each of us for such a time as this. Perhaps this will all blow over and we won’t remember it in the years to come. Let’s simply seek to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. 

You Should Fear More

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In the midst of a global pandemic, there are many who will tell you not to fear. They’re wrong. You need to fear. You need to fear much more than you currently do. It’s true that you don’t need to fear a virus, but you do need to fear God. This isn’t a “Jesus Juke”. This is actually the greatest need at a time like this. 

Fear is something that is directed at something that has power or control over you. You fear something that is in charge of the situation, something that can do with you as it pleases. Moments like this show us how many things we fear. We fear sickness and plague. Despite our amazing advancements in medicine, we aren’t able to halt a virus like Covid-19 soon enough to keep everyone safe. We fear the suffering that a virus like this could cause. We fear death. We fear running out of food or modern conveniences like toilet paper. We fear economic depression. 

If you fear these things, it means that they have power over you and they control how you choose to live. But if you fear any of these things then you should always be afraid. This has all happened before and will likely happen again. Plague, suffering, lack, chaos, and death is all a regular part of life in a fallen world. So why start fearing now? We are afraid now because our normal means of distraction aren’t working. Our normal means of alleviating the fear can’t fix it. Our normal ways of pretending that we don’t have to fear have been taken away. Now wherever you turn, there are more reminders of how bad things are getting out there. 

The answer to fear is not to pretend it doesn’t exist or to ignore it. There is a good reason to fear viruses and death if this world is all there is. The solution to our fear is not to fear less, but to fear God more. We need to direct our fear properly. This is why we have the often repeated command in scripture to “Fear God.” “And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day” (Deut. 6:24). It’s at times like this that we need to rediscover the fear of God. 

Pop Evangelicalism would like to turn the fear of God into respect. It really does include respect. If you were standing before a hungry lion there would be a kind of respect, but it’s not without fear. When God spoke to Job from the whirlwind, I’m sure Job had some respect for the sight, but his knees were probably shaking as well. God has complete control over you and your life. You couldn’t breathe without him. Your heart wouldn’t beat without him. Yes, men can kill your body, but you should fear the one that can destroy both your body and soul in hell. 

Outside of Christ, God should terrify you. Inside of Christ the fear doesn’t go away but it becomes the fear of a son for his father. We have not been given a Spirit of fear (2 Tim. 1:7). This is one of those Biblical truths that makes sense from the inside. You can’t see it apart from faith. In death there is life. In suffering there is joy. To be a slave to Christ is to find freedom. To fear God is to remove all other fear. True knowledge and wisdom doesn’t even start apart from that fear (Prov. 1:7). 

Obviously, it’s somewhat provocative to say in a time like this that you should fear more. I’m not simply trying to be provocative. This is actually one of our greatest needs. God often shakes the earth to show what is truly stable and what remains (Heb. 12:26-28). God is a consuming fire and when he consumes, the ultimate purpose is not destruction and condemnation but renewal and salvation. To fear God at a time like this is to recognize that he is in total control, he is using even this pandemic for his ends, and we should turn to him in trusting faith. We don’t know why he is shaking, why he is sending such a plague, but we should know that he is in control and thus the only one to be feared.

Where You Appeal, There Your Heart Is

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I alluded in the last article to the idea of God shaking the earth in order to show what is lasting and can stand. One of the things that happens when God shakes things, when he allows our normal safety nets and objects of trust to fall apart, is that it shows who we really are. I once heard it said (or read somewhere I can’t remember which) that we are all like filled cups. When God shakes things, whatever spills out is what has been inside the whole time. Jesus put it this way, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:33-34). What comes out of you at a time like this is what was inside all the time. All the pretense goes away. 

Most of us have experienced the panic out there. Maybe we have taken part in it. You see what is spilling out of people. There is a large amount of bitterness and resentment in the stores as people see others take what they want for themselves or think they need. There is frustration and animosity toward those who we think are supposed to be in control. There is doubt and lack of trust wondering where God is in all of this mess. So how are you reacting? What is spilling out of you? This is a great time to realistically assess where your heart has been for a long time. 

One of the ways that you can assess your heart is to look at what you are appealing to for help at a time like this. Ask yourself, “What is my first response to this crisis? Where do I first appeal?” I’ve seen countless people, including many Christians and ministry leaders, whose first response was to start with political posturing. Whether it be in trusting or condemning the current administration, or using this time to point out the glories of socialism and problems of capitalism, there are many whose first reaction to the crisis is to appeal to our political system. This shouldn’t surprise us completely. Statism, the worship of the state (no matter which party), is a common idol in our day. Is that what we want to see from Christians? If we are honest, many of us could probably fall into that camp. 

What should our first, almost automatic response be in crisis? “Lord have mercy.” “Lord save us.” “Lord we trust you.” “I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust” (Ps. 91:2). We should expect the world to fear, panic, and cry out to futile idols for salvation. It’s devastating to realize that many of us in the church are doing the same thing. We have forgotten our first love. We have pledged loyalty to others. We have sought out many devices.

When God shakes you and reveals your heart of idols what do you do? Follow in the footsteps of Josiah. “And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant. And the king commanded Hilkiah the high priest and the priests of the second order and the keepers of the threshold to bring out of the temple of the Lord all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven. He burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron and carried their ashes to Bethel. And he deposed the priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem; those also who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and the moon and the constellations and all the host of the heavens. And he brought out the Asherah from the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron and beat it to dust and cast the dust of it upon the graves of the common people” (2 Kgs. 23:3-6). 

The basic idea is repent. Return once again to the Lord who bought you. Cast down your idols, take them outside of the city of your life, burn them, beat them to dust, dishonor them. Put them to death. Mortify your flesh. This is one of the many things the Lord is teaching us through this crisis. We should not ignore it.

Ideas for Family Worship Part 1

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For many of us, life hasn’t changed that drastically yet. I am thankful to God for all of you in hospitals and any other part of society that hasn’t shut down. Your hard work is not going unnoticed. For many others, though, life is very different now that social distancing has been set in place. Most of us are spending more time at home, even if that is simply because you have stopped commuting to work or going out in the evening. While we have this time, we want to be careful that we do not waste it by spending it on things that will pass away. One of the most practical and helpful activities you can do while you’re forced to be home more, is to establish a regular pattern of family worship. In my mind, family religion is one of the top signs that you take your faith seriously. I include you who are single in this as well; your family will just be a bit smaller, and we would typically call it personal worship. Everything that follows is something you could start implementing in your life as well.  

One of the things that becomes clear when people talk about family worship is how much we have to grow. Most of us just don’t know where to start even if we do see the need and have a desire to implement it in our homes. Toward that end I wanted to give some practical help. I’ve reached out to some families in our church who I know practice regular family worship and asked them to answer some questions about it. I will be publishing those answers over the next week or so. To start, I thought I would share what we do in our home. This has been a learning experience for us. We by no means have the answers, nor do we feel that we totally know what we are doing. But if I am encouraging you to start worshipping with your family, it’s important that I myself have some skin in the game. Hopefully this is helpful. 

After 4 years of trial and error, this is our normal routine for family worship. We tried to do something daily but kept failing the huge goals we made and decided to start slow. How we did that was by implementing one day a week where we have extended family worship (between 30-60 mins). We do it on Thursday because that is usually my family day during the week. Here is our “order of service”:

  1. Hymn Singing
  2. Prayer
  3. Memory Verse
  4. Bible Reading
  5. Catechism
  6. Prayer
  7. Singing the Gloria Patri to close

We open with several hymns. Right now, we sing the songs that were played at each of the children’s baptisms (Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus, A Mighty Fortress is our God, Good is the Lord and Full of Kind Compassion). We repeat the same hymns each week with the goal that we will all actually memorize them over time. We let the kids move around during this time. 

After singing, we open in prayer. I have the boys try to sit during most of the rest of the time as practice for the Sunday Service (which has really helped on Sundays, especially when Dad is preaching and not sitting with them in the pew). We are always memorizing a passage of scripture together which we then recite. We memorized Psalm 23 and repeated it every week all last year. Now we are working on 1 Corinthians 13. We have used the music of “The Corner Room” to help us memorize them (they have both passages put to music directly from the ESV). 

We then read some Scripture. We have an ESV reader’s edition which we have made our “Family Bible” that we use for this. We read a selection from the Old Testament and then from the Gospels (usually pretty short depending on the day). We started reading Genesis at least a year ago, if not more, and are still a couple chapters away from finishing, if that helps you understand the amount that we read. After doing only an OT passage for a while, we then added in some from the Gospel of Matthew, usually just a paragraph or so. We talk about any questions the kids have while we read. I should also add that each of the boys has their own Bible (an ESV economy bible) so they get used to opening it, holding it, trying to follow along. I bought the cheap ones because let’s face it, they are going to get pretty beat up.

We then work on catechism using Westminster Shorter Catechism. We have worked through memorizing the first 20 or so questions. My wife and I put each of the answers to a common tune that the kids know already, which makes it easier for them (for instance, the answer to Q. 1 is to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star). I also often let them get up and move around a bit while answering the questions. However if it gets too wild and rowdy (which is often) I will have them sit. Depending on the question, we could go a couple of weeks working on the same one though ideally, we like to be doing one a week and memorizing throughout the week. 

We follow this with family prayer. With the boys’ help we pick couples from our own family on both sides and people from the church to pray for. Finally, we sing Gloria Patri to close it out, usually ending with the boys jumping on me. 

Building from our big Thursday worship time, we have added daily time as well. Each morning at breakfast, I read the boys one Proverb (starting in Proverbs 10:1) and talk about what it means. We have also started to learn a hymn in the morning which right now is “Be Thou My Vision” because we heard it at a wedding and the boys wanted to learn it. At the dinner table while everyone is eating, we also read a little. We focus that time on learning about prayer, and right now we are reading a collection of prayers by C. H. Spurgeon. We have also started trying (though often failing) to walk through the Sunday Service on Saturday night so the boys are prepared. We simply read the Bible Passages that will be used, sing the hymns, and spend a short time in prayer. 

So that’s what we are currently doing. Hopefully it’s not overwhelming if you haven’t even started yet. Realize that it took Emily and I the last few years to really get into a routine of these things and I’m a Pastor. Be encouraged that you can do it. A couple of recommendations: routine and repetition. Work it into your routine so that it is natural and harder to miss. We do it regularly enough now that when I am negligent and don’t lead my family well in getting us to do family worship, I will often hear my rule following first-born say, “Hey, we forgot to do family worship!” Repetition just means keep repeating stuff. Read the same Bible passage over and over together until you really know it. Repeat the same catechism over and over. 

You don’t have to be doing the most glorious and amazing family devotions in the world, but you need to do something. If you want to see your family grow and if you want to see true Reformation in our world, that starts with you and your family. Don’t do it as something dead and cold, but out of true faith. Just do something. Start somewhere. Sing a hymn together. Read one chapter of the Bible together. Start somewhere. As I said, I will get some other voices of encouragement in this area published soon.

Ideas for Family Worship Part 2

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In an attempt to encourage you in practicing family religion, I reached out to some men from the congregation asking what they do for family worship and if they would answer some other questions in that regard. Here is the first of these “interviews” on family worship. I hope that this will encourage you to begin your own worship routine in your home, or to continue growing in what you have already begun.

How did you begin practicing family worship?

We started by reading Catherine Vos’ Children’s Story Bible. It is a fantastic way to start. Great for ANYONE who is not familiar with the Bible and Bible Stories, parents will get something out of it too. Take a hymn and read it to the family, explaining/studying the doctrines within the hymn. One verse can be a great night of family worship. It also makes the hymns/songs much more meaningful. 

What do you currently do for family worship?

We gather together at the end of the day (may not be the best time), we open in prayer, sing a hymn/song, read the Bible and/or watch a teaching video or read from a book/study, and then close in prayer. It can take 5 minutes to 40 minutes. Many times we do it in the car on the way home from events. We have watched portions of the documentary American Gospel as our family worship. We often use Ligonier, Fighting for the Faith, Bezlt3.  

What ways have you failed along the way? 

There are times, unfortunately, that I know I don’t give our prayers and our Bible reading the honor God deserves, my heart isn’t right, it’s not how we dress, or sit, but there are times I don’t give God due honor from my heart. Sometimes we are rushed or tired, sometimes we are not very gracious to one another.

How do you recommend families begin the practice?

Just start doing something together as a family. There is no right or wrong way, well there is a wrong way, that is to do nothing. We only have so much time to guide our children, the time goes fast. My children will no doubt remember a lot of my failings but I hope they always remember that we had family worship and that it becomes a necessity in their families. Start with 5 to 10 minutes, age appropriate. Mix it up, there are plenty of options. A good start is reading or listening to the texts for the upcoming service at CCC and pick a hymn/song from the service as well, they are listed on the website. For us consistency is the key, if we put it off this night, it is much easier to put it off that night. Sometimes only one of the parents can be involved. There are times when the parents are unavailable and our oldest will lead. If a child is old enough to sit and watch a movie or tv, they are old enough for family worship. It takes patience, encouragement, and discipline. 

Why would you recommend regular family worship?

We are required (Deuteronomy 6:7). I am responsible for my children with the HELP of the church. I want more than anything for my children to be saved and all I can do toward that end is present the truth and pray. Family worship helps teach them how to worship as a congregation on Sunday. They learn to be quiet and sit still, they can become familiar with the songs and text at home before the church service. Discussions are important. If you only make it through one verse because there are so many questions, what a blessing, they were engaged enough to ask questions. If they ever leave the church, those memories, those hymns/songs, those Bible stories and verses will still be there, perhaps God in his graciousness would use those to bring them back, we don’t know. All we can do is be faithful and trust God’s grace and mercy.

Some Recommended Resources:

Shepherding a Child’s Heart

Instructing a Child’s Heart

Age of Opportunity

Trial and Triumph

Be Gracious

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“But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps. 86:15)

As I write this, we (at least in our corner of Wisconsin) are starting to approach what it looks like to start returning to pre-Covid conditions. Obviously, there are many things that won’t immediately go back to “normal” and there is much of the future that remains unknown (almost all of it). As a Church, we have decided to start meeting back together with limited group sizes, extending to multiple services if needed. 

Now that we are going to start gathering again, it seems important to me that we are all reminded that as Christians we need to be gracious to one another. Remember that is who God is. Look at the passage above. He is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, he abounds in steadfast love and faithfulness. That is what we should seek to be like as well. So what does that look like moving forward? 

When someone doesn’t come back to church right away, be gracious. You don’t have to condemn or judge another, and you don’t get to try to bind someone else’s conscience. When you come to the service and you see someone who isn’t wearing a mask, be gracious, it doesn’t mean they don’t love their neighbors. When you come back to church and you see people wearing masks, be gracious. It doesn’t mean they are full of fear and don’t properly fear God. The temptation of our flesh at a time like this is going to be to construct a new legalism that allows us to pass judgements on others in order to condemn them for their choices. Don’t do that, be gracious. 

The way forward is not as clear as social media pundits would have you believe. It’s not necessarily evil for someone to want to open up the State and return to church. It’s not necessarily evil for someone to want to remain home for a time. Be gracious to one another. It would be far worse to be infected with the spiritual virus of bitterness, animosity, unrighteous anger and judgmentalism than to be infected by any physical virus. 

So, friends, as we slowly figure out what it looks like to not neglect meeting together and to corporately worship our Savior, lets not forget what he is like. He is merciful, gracious, forgiving, slow to anger, and abounds in love and faithfulness. Be like him.