Category: Global issues

Governor Bans Groups of 100+

Gov. Ralph Northam on a conference call to reporters today banned groups of 100 or more from meeting in the state of Virginia until further notice. Northam also said that even if you’re gathering a few people, you should cancel plans to do so. The governor also strongly encouraged Virginia residents to stay away from restaurants, bars, and churches.

Our church had already decided to close for the next two weeks. Although we average about 70 or so per Sunday, we will remain closed for worship and activities of groups within our buildings until health authority guidance says it is safe otherwise.

While our congregation is usually under 100, the point is to avoid crowds, to practice social distancing, and to stem the spread of the coronavirus. As good citizens, good neighbors and a responsible community institution, we will do everything possible to prevent the further spread of this disease. To do less would be to act in a manner opposite Christ’s command to “love your neighbor.”

Church Resources for Coronavirus

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Our church has begun to address the possibility of the coronavirus affecting our worship and day-to-day ministry. Sunday morning worship is important, but if health department guidance requires us to cancel worship gatherings, we are still the church. The best things we do already are caring for one another and our community. In light of the coronavirus impact, our church is developing plans to do four things whether we can meet for worship or not.

First, we plan to communicate with our members and our community. We have in place an online telephone calling service, OneCallNow, which can easily be expanded to call hundreds of households. In addition, our deacons have about 10 families each that they care for, and they will be in contact with these families personally during any crisis. Finally, the CDC suggests a “buddy system” so that community members can check on each other. While many of our members do this informally now, we hope to formalize that system to insure that everyone is included in daily wellness checks.

Second, we plan to provide transport, where possible. Our community has a large number of senior adults. Many have children who live away from Chatham. Helping folks get to doctors, grocery stores, pharmacies, and shopping is something we already do now, but will expand in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

Third, we plan to insure that those in our community have the necessities of daily living, including food, medicines, household goods, and so on. This may become vital if numbers of our residents are required to self-quarantine. We already have two food ministries providing groceries to homes around our church, and backpack meals to elementary school children on weekends. We will simply expand our grocery shopping and drop off necessities to those in our town who need them.

Finally, above all, we have and will continue to pray for the coronavirus situation worldwide. We pray for government leaders, health professionals, and those affected by the virus. Please begin to pray and plan now in your churches. The best-case scenario is that our plans will be an exercise for readiness. The worst-case is that our plans will provide vital ministry to those affected by the coronavirus.

Here’s a lengthy resource from Northshore Church in Kirkland, WA — a center of the coronavirus impact. This document contains situational guidance, as well as sample letters and emails that you can adapt for your church situation. 

“ALL THINGS CORONAVIRUS”

ALL Material below is free/fair use

Updated 3/6/20 at 1pm

  • The following document was put together by Northshore Church in Kirkland, WA – the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak)
  • They are a large (2,000+ attendees) church with multiple staff.
  • Not all of this information will be useful to churches of other sizes and budgets, but there is still quite a bit that can be gleaned.

Approach

Your communication around the coronavirus should be a two-fold approach: pastoral and tactical. Communication should be pastoral because, in a time of fear and crisis, people will need to be reminded that God is their refuge and strength an ever-present help in times of trouble. Communication should also be tactical as people will want to know there is a plan and be reassured that you are taking their health seriously.

Before you get into any discussions around pastoral and tactical communications, we recommend you take the following actions:

  1. Get decision-making leaders together to be on the same page
    1. Don’t try and manage up if you are not a decision maker
  2. Learn about the virus here and here to help inform decisions
    1. Don’t let fear drive decisions, there is a lot of false information out there
  3. Contact your local State/County/City health office as soon as possible
    1. You’ll want them to know you exist as a church and in the event of an outbreak for them to give you guidance

Tactical Questions

Before you begin any form of tactical communication, we recommend you ask your leaders the following questions:

  • What does our cleaning/sanitation process currently look like?
    • Are all our frequently touched surfaces involved in the cleaning process (ie doors, handles, water fountains, tables, sinks, check-in stations, touchscreens)?
    • Do we need to take extra cleaning measures?
  • What will we need to do around service elements?
    • Will we stop Communion during this time?
    • Will we stop passing the offering buckets/plates (if applicable)?
    • Will we stop passing out bulletins/programs (if applicable)?
    • Will we stop doing a greeting time (if applicable)?
  • Are we asking our volunteers/door greeters/welcome teams to refrain from shaking hands?
    • Are we asking them to frequently wash their hands?
  • Do we refrain from offering coffee or other treats during this time?
  • What does our cleaning/sanitation process look like for kid’s rooms?
    • Are all our frequently touched surfaces involved in the cleaning process (i.e. toys, doors, handles, water fountains, tables, sinks, check-in stations, touchscreens)?
    • Do we need to take extra cleaning measures?
  • Are we visibly doing things that help people see cleanliness? e.g. putting out hand sanitizer stations, having staff/volunteers wipe surfaces while people are around)
  • Do you have a plan if an individual in your congregation tests positive for the Coronavirus?
    • Do you take attendance of kids and volunteers, in case you need to reach out to a group that was around that individual?
  • What would cause us to have to cancel services?
    • Does a certain number of people have to get sick in your congregation?
    • Do the local health office recommendations have an impact on our decision making?
  • Where are we posting our closures? (e.g. building signage, Google My Business, phone messages, email, social media, website)

Tactical Communications

Your leadership’s approach and answers to tactical questions should inform your communications at this point. We recommend getting ahead of the issue so you are not caught unprepared. Determine now what communication channels you plan to use (e.g.. website, social media, email, text, from the stage).

  1. If the coronavirus was just discovered in your area, we recommend letting your congregation know you are aware of it and are keeping an eye on it. You want them to feel safe and that there is thought behind it. Here is an example (borrowed heavily from Menlo Church):

Dear XYZ Family,

At XYZ Church, we want to care for our congregation in all respects, including the physical well-being of our community. To that end, we are asking you, our congregants, to take precautions to keep yourself and others safe, especially in light of recent developments with the coronavirus (COVID-19).

 Please be mindful of the guidance from the Virginia Department of Health and the CDC, including: 

  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • While asymptomatic travelers from China are not mandated to observe a 14-day quarantine, we urge you to consider refraining from attending church events, classes and services until the 14-day time-frame has been observed. We also ask that anyone returning from a high-alert area (currently South Korea, Iran, Italy, Japan) consider doing the same.

The uncertainty of this outbreak is creating anxiety in our workplaces, schools, and day-to-day activities. Yet we remain certain of God’s steadfast presence and careful attention to all that is happening. Please join us in praying for those who are affected by this illness, as well as their caregivers and those who are working around the clock to minimize the impact of this virus.

 In Psalm 46, we are reminded that it is God who is our refuge and strength, and our ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, let us not fear, but with confidence use this opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus through our prayers and our care for others.

 In Christ,

  1. If the coronavirus is spreading in your area, we recommend letting your congregation know your plan of action and what your expectations are of them. It’s also important that you give them an opportunity to feel heard in this communication. Here is what we published when we knew it was spreading:

Dear XYZ Family,

I want to update you on what’s happening at XYZ in light of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in our area. Like you, I’ve been following this evolving story with great concern. I’ve also reached out to local city officials and spoken with a number of other pastors in the area to gain perspective on how to best move forward. Please read through this entire email as it contains detailed plans for keeping our campus safe, and how you can help.

 At this time, officials are not recommending the cancelation of public events or Sunday church gatherings. We will remain open and we will continue to have services on Sundays and midweek programming. In the event that local and state health officials do recommend closure or we determine it is in the best interest of our Northshore family to close, we will inform everyone to the best of our abilities through our website, emails and social media.

 During this time, here’s how we are committed to keeping our campus clean:

  1. We will sanitize highly touched surfaces before and after every service such as doors, handles, tables, water fountains, check-in stations, and sinks.
  2. Our staff and volunteer teams will wash their hands frequently and stay home if they are sick.
  3. We will provide additional hand sanitizer stations around the building for everyone to use.
  4. Offering buckets/plates will be relocated to the back of the auditorium so you don’t need to pass them down the row.

During this time, we are asking you to help stop the spread of the virus in the following ways:

  1. Stay at home when you or a family member are sick.
  2. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  3. Cover your sneeze or cough with a tissue or your arm.
  4. Get in the habit of NOT touching your face so often.
  5. Forgo shaking hands at church for a wave or a friendly smile.
  6. If you or someone you know tests positive for COVID-19, please let us know so we can find a way to help, pray for everyone involved and take any necessary precautions.

For families with kids:

In addition to keeping our campus clean, we will be taking extra care of our kids’ spaces. Kids’ toys and rooms will be sanitized before and after every service.

Questions or concerns?

If you’d like to share your thoughts, concerns, questions, and ideas with us as we navigate our response to this situation, we’d love to hear from you. Your input and feedback are truly important to us. Please email ____ or call ___.

While we cannot control the virus, the spread or the impact it has in our church, we’re doing everything we can to make our facility as safe and clean as possible. We appreciate your cooperation and commitment to help us do just that. We must also remember that God has not called us to live in fear but in faith. As the apostle, Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For the Spirit of God does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline.” My prayer is that God will fill all of us with these three gifts, no matter what comes our way.

Spiritual Questions

Before you begin any form of spiritual communication, we recommend you ask your leaders the following questions:

  • What are we doing to encourage our congregation to not live in fear?
  • What opportunities do we have to help our local communities?
  • What are we doing to encourage our volunteers to show up and serve?
  • What are we doing to help people who are staying home to stay engaged with our church (ie livestream, digital content, phone calls)

Spiritual Communications

Your leadership’s approach and answers to spiritual questions should inform your communications at this point. We recommend spending twice as much time communicating around this than tactical communication. People will remember more how you’ve impacted their hearts than the list of procedures. Every church’s approach to this will be completely different; you will know what the best approach is for your congregation (know your audience).

  1. We recommend your pastors or hosts acknowledge the crisis from the stage. Here is a sample of one weekend we talked about it (skip to 15:25 & 1:00:15): https://boxcast.tv/view/northshore-online-1100am-lamoawxgmijwc2gxoi89
  2. We recommend the leaders of volunteers send a video, text message, or phone call to your volunteers letting them know how their service is making a difference. Remember people often come back to the church in times of crisis – this time they might simply reach out from afar. Don’t guilt them into this, let them know how they are valued and how they personally make an impact. Volunteers may be tempted to stay home during this crisis, which is why this is important to do this. (I’ll try and track down one of our leader’s video they sent to their volunteers)

 

  1. We recommend looking for ways to make an impact in your community during this crisis. For us it was simple, we wanted to help out the staff and patients of the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington – the epicenter of the coronavirus where unfortunately many residents passed away. We decided to provide the staff with Chick-Fil-A lunches one day and the next day we delivered care packages to the residents. We posted this on social media and it gained A LOT of traction in our community (especially in community Facebook groups). You’ll notice a lot of fear and negativity on social media feeds during this time, so this is a stark and welcomed difference.

Chick-Fil-A post: https://www.facebook.com/northshorecommunity/videos/483234312352107/

Care package post:

https://www.facebook.com/northshorecommunity/videos/230841131411054/

Here is the email we sent out asking for our congregation’s help:

Northshore Family,

 It’s been quite a week. Whether you joined us in person or online, Sunday’s gathering was an amazing opportunity to be reminded of the power of God’s love, even in uncertain times. If you haven’t watched it yet, make sure you do. To watch this Sunday’s message, click here.

We’re continuing to pray for wisdom on how best to prepare and respond to the recent coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in our area. We’ll be sending an email out later today with a more detailed approach on how we are responding and doing our part to keep our campus safe and clean. In the meantime, we’ve been praying and thinking about ways we can be together for our neighbors with all that’s happening. We’ve been in touch with the leadership at the Life Care Center of Kirkland. As you may have heard, they are dealing with a number of potential coronavirus cases and are in quarantine.

They were excited and encouraged by our offer to bring care packages for their residents and staff with treats, activities to do in their rooms, and other items to help brighten their days through this difficult time. They have 104 residents and around 150 staff members. If you’d like to help out, here’s what you can do:

  1. Please bring items to fill the care packages to Northshore this evening and tomorrow morning.The main lobby will be open until 9pm tonight and our office opens again at 9am tomorrow. Here’s a list of suggested items:

–       Playing cards/jigsaw puzzles/puzzle books (word searches, crosswords, sudoku, etc.)

–      Individually-packaged, non-perishable snacks (granola bars, fruit snacks, crackers, canned drinks, etc.)

–       Hand lotion

–       Fuzzy socks

–       Magazines

–       DVDs

–       Premium facial tissues (the kind with lotion to soothe irritated noses)

–       Please DO NOT bring any homemade food, items with nuts, or used items that could carry germs or allergens.

 

  1. If you feel healthy, please join us at 10am on Tuesday (tomorrow) morning at Northshore in the Glacier room to assemble these care packages, which will be delivered later that day. Childcare will not be provided, but older children are welcome to help assemble the packages.

 

  1. If you’re unable to drop off donations or help us assemble care packages, you can donate to our efforts by visiting northshore.church/give and selecting the fund “Together For.”

 

It’s part of our DNA as a church to be together for our neighbors, the next generation and those in need, so that the Puget Sound and beyond can flourish. We believe God calls us to be agents of love and care for those who are hurting, especially in times like this. This is our chance, Northshore! Thanks for being part of helping those at risk, however you can. 

Other Communications

A couple of other pieces of information your leaders should consider:

  1. Staff communication. Always let the staff know your plans before anyone else. Always. They are your team members and can help answer many questions on your behalf.
    1. What policies/closures does the staff/volunteers need to be updated on?
    2. What does it look like for staff to work remotely?
    3. What does PTO/Sick Time look like?
    4. Who is the point person for communication?
      1. You’ll want this person to set the standard for all forms of communication
      2. You’ll want your staff and volunteers reiterating what has already been communicated – be consistent and clear!
    5. Are there staff/volunteer social media policies in place?
      1. You don’t want staff or volunteers mentioning they think they know someone who attends your church and has the virus

 

  1. Dealing with the press. Be prepared for the press to come knocking. This can be a great opportunity for exposure in your community — if you’re ready and have a plan!
    1. Who is the point person to talk to the press?
      1. You’ll want that person to have knowledge of the entire approach and policies.
      2. They’ll need to be consistent with what is posted and said – the presspicks up on inconsistencies!
  • Try and control some of the narratives and stay positive, encouraging and calm.
  1. Avoid letting them walk up to people in your congregation whom you don’t know. It could be someone’s first day there and you don’t want them feeling out of place and uncomfortable.
  1. Try reaching out to or tagging the press if you are making an impact in the community.

 

Washington Post Article:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/coronavirus-spread-kirkland-washington/2020/03/01/5e112fb8-5c10-11ea-9055-5fa12981bbbf_story.html

 

Daily Mail Article:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-8066783/Panic-epicenter-coronavirus-outbreak-Kirkland-Washington.html

 

Q13 Fox:

https://q13fox.com/2020/03/03/cornavirus-deaths-tied-to-kirkland-nursing-facility-increase-to-7/

 

Spirit FM:

https://www.spirit1053.com/2020/03/05/northshore-community-church-catches-the-spirit/

 

Cancellation of Services

Church isn’t something you can cancel. It’s what happens whenever ordinary people show the world the good news of Jesus. So, whatever you do, don’t use the word or any variant of the word “canceled” (I know I just did in the heading, but it was to get your attention). Instead, find ways to take church to your people. But what happens if the coronavirus starts to impact your church services/ministries? A couple pieces of information your leaders should consider:

 

  1. Mid-week services/ministries should be easier to make plans for, but ask these questions:
    1. What ministries meet throughout the week on your campus? (e.g. students, MOPS, Bible studies)
      1. How large are these groups? If the groups meet in close quarters or have 10+ people in them, the CDC and local health officials recommend not gathering in person.
      2. Are the people in these groups considered high-risk? People who are generally at high-risk are those 60+yrs old, women who are pregnant or those who have underlying health issues.
    2. Can any of these services/ministries meet virtually?
      1. Have you looked into any free or paid digital content providers? Facebook and Youtube are a great way to broadcast for free. Zoom is a great way for groups to gather and is free for up to 100 people for 40 minutes! Rightnow Media is a great paid resource for countless Bible study curriculum for adults and kids.
    3. What criteria are you using to postpone or move these services/ministries online and for how long?
      1. Are the criteria based on local/state health officials, school districts, or Mayoral/Governor’s Office? We recommend going with whoever has the most impact on your day to day operations and is most respected.
        1. For all of Northshore’s Mid-week services/ministries, we follow our local school districts lead regardless of what the issue is (snow, power outages, coronavirus, etc.). We follow their lead because they are the most respected and have a direct impact on mid-week ministries/services. If school is closed, cancelled or delayed, many of the parents that would normally come to these ministries/services have to make plans around caring for their kids. Our local school district recently decided to close for 14 days. This means for the next 14 days we are taking church online for these ministries.
      2. What communication channels will you plan to use if you are postponing or taking church online? (e.g.. website, social media, email, text, from the stage).

 

  1. Sunday services is the most difficult to make plans for, but ask these questions:
    1. What criteria are you using to postpone or move Sunday services online and for how long? A number of factors should come into play when figuring this out.
      1. Outbreak – If you’ve found out someone has tested positive in your church, this should be cause for concern for the health of your church.
      2. Government Recommendation/Edict – if there is rapid growth in your community, at some point the government will publicly recommend the suspension of large gatherings. We strongly encourage you to heed their advice.
        1. It’s been our experience that when the local government announces these recommendations, they’re already several days behind the curve of when they should have announced these recommendations.
  • Optics – Your local community and congregation will be watching and judging your response. You may personally feel canceling is an overaction (and it may be depending on the situation) but what are you silently communicating to them? That your church doesn’t care about their health and the good/well being of the local community. Reality is how people perceive things and if the reality to everyone else is a big deal, then it’s a big deal! This doesn’t mean you should make decisions based on fear or pressure but use wisdom. But ask yourself this question, what happens if your community or the press finds out the coronavirus has spread at your church due to negligence? It doesn’t matter how much good you’ve done in your community through your various outreach programs, your church reputation is tarnished and it will take a very long time to dig out of that hole.
  1. What options do you have when it comes to taking church online or postponing?
    1. Do you have the option to livestream your services?
      1. If so…
        1. Do you have a plan for backup staff or volunteers to help run the livestream in case they become sick?
        2. Do you have a backup plan for a live-stream service or equipment failure?
          1. With Wes quarantines, many more people in your community will be online and could affect data speeds.
          2. With many more churches going to livestream, does your livestream service provider have the bandwidth to handle the recent surge in broadcasting?
        3. Will you have a simple worship set or the same worship set?
        4. Will you continue your message series or will you adjust to meet people where they are at?
      2. If not…
        1. Can you record a message/sermon and set it go live/premiere on Facebook or YouTube?
        2. Can you approach a local church who has the capability to do live streaming and ask them to record a message in the middle of the week so you can broadcast it from Facebook or YouTube on Sunday?
        3. Would you consider asking your congregation to tune into another church’s live stream until you are able to gather again?

 

Here is the email we sent out letting everyone know we are doing Sunday services online:

Northshore Family,

I’d like to take a few minutes of your time to update you on what’s happening at Northshore as we navigate the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in this part of the world which we call home.

First of all, I want to say how proud I am of this church family. The care packages that were assembled for residents of the Life Care Center, the resources that have been given and the prayers that have been prayed have been such an example of love in the midst of uncertainty. People of all ages are coming together for our neighbors, the next generation and those in need. 

We’ve received phone calls from people who don’t go here to say thank you and strangers stop by to donate money. One local artist even auctioned off a painting and gave the proceeds to Northshore. All of this happened because people are seeing a church that’s living out of faith, rather than out of fear. So thank you Northshore for your courage and generosity.

Last fall, when we launched Northshore Online, we dreamed about how this could help more people hear the good news of Jesus and take a next step in their faith.  What we didn’t know then, was that God was actually preparing us for this moment when we would be called on to adapt how we do church together to meet the needs of our community and reach the hearts of our neighbors. So here’s what’s coming next.

Online-Only Sunday Services

This Sunday, March 8, our services will be held online only. Service times will remain the same at 8, 9:30 and 11am. Our hope is to be able to gather together on our church campus in Kirkland as soon as possible, but in the meantime, we believe we can continue to learn and grow together as a church by worshipping together in our homes with friends and family. And you can still invite your friends!  If you’ll be watching the livestream on Facebook, we encourage you to share it on your feed. If you’ll be watching on our website, consider inviting someone to join you by sending them the link.

To watch the livestream on our website, click here

To watch on Facebook, click here

 For Families with Kids

Please know that your families will continue to be in our prayers as we navigate these circumstances together. Our hope is to keep your kids engaged and provide ways for them to grow spiritually. We’ve curated online curriculum for your kids through Right Now Media, which we highly encourage you to utilize. It’s super easy to register and is a great way for kids to do church online along with the rest of your family! We provide anyone who calls Northshore home free access to this service. After you register, head on over to the Northshore Community Church channel on the left side and you’ll be able to see all of the curriculum that has been uploaded to the NKids section. There are several videos for kids with optional discussion questions and activities that can be downloaded.

 

Mid-Week Programs

Since our midweek programs traditionally follow the Northshore School District scheduling, we are suspending all on-campus ministries for the next 2 weeks.  We will evaluate this decision week to week as the situation around the outbreak continues to unfold.  In the meantime, we will be providing alternative ways for you to grow closer to God and learn more about Him. 

 

Opportunities to Serve & Give

While the impacts of the coronavirus mean some changes to our daily lives, the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of people have not been put on hold and we must continue to care for those around us. The residents and staff at Life Care Center of Kirkland have been going through a difficult time and we want to come alongside them to provide encouragement, hope and practical help. One way we can help is by providing meals for the employees there.

 

We’ve coordinated with the leadership at Life Care to arrange two meals a day for their staff through Saturday, March 14.  We’re asking people to sign up to deliver store-bought or restaurant-made meals to feed either 10 or 25 staff members. You will not need to enter the facility or come in contact with any staff or residents.

 

Sign up here.

 

Consider gathering a group of friends or neighbors to share the cost. If you cannot provide a meal, consider donating to this effort by going to our giving page and choosing “Together for” from the dropdown menu. All donations will be used to support this initiative as well as others being impacted by this outbreak. We’ll be sending out an email soon with more information on how you can sign up, so be on the lookout for that.

 

Even though we’re not gathering in-person for church, you still have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others by giving your tithes and offerings through our giving page.

 

Final Thoughts

Even though our world has changed, the power of God has not changed. The truth of Scripture has not changed. The hope of Jesus has not changed. Our mission as a church has not changed. Let us not give in to fear. Rather, let’s fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

 

In Christ,

Scott Scruggs

 

  1. Easter services are the hardest one to plan for right now. The coronavirus is rapidly spreading across the globe and is lingering in cities for several weeks/months. Unfortunately, the timing of this will leave many churches in limbo. Here are some questions (we don’t have answers for) that you should ask:
    1. How many services should we plan for?
    2. If you are meeting in a public place, is there a possibility those places could be closed during that time due to an outbreak?
    3. Are you hiring any guest speakers or musicians that could get sick or cancel?
    4. Are you planning on using communion?
    5. Are you planning on baptisms?
    6. Are you planning serving any food or drinks?
    7. If you are asking your congregation to invite people, regardless of method, will people actually want to come to your Easter Services during an outbreak?
      1. This should help you use caution around how much money you’re spending for marketing/promoting Easter
    8. If you can’t meet for Easter, is there something BIG you can do for your community instead?

 

After Charlottesville

charlottesville-protests-8-rt-jt-170812_1_12x5_992

Photo credit: ABC News

Yesterday I preached on the story of Joseph and his brothers from Genesis 37. Arrogant Joseph with his multicolored coat, and his brothers who plotted to kill him when they saw him coming. This story resonates in light of the violence and hatred and death in Charlottesville, Virginia, just 110-miles north of where I live.

Joseph and his brothers illustrate the worst in our society today — division, hate, racism, and violence. Often, our first knee-jerk response to those with whom we disagree is to violent, vengeful thoughts. This Joseph story — with its division, hatred, and violence — is as old as humanity, and sadly often repeated.

Here’s the audio of my sermon yesterday. It’s only 18-minutes, but I think you’ll find it helpful. This is not about confederate monuments or free speech or political parties — its about violence, hatred, and vengefulness. These are never morally right, whether the cause is repugnant or righteous. Jesus has called his followers to respond in a totally different way from our society’s default to violence. Listen and tell me what you think. And pray for Charlottesville…and our nation.

Podcast: A Story We Might Like to Forget

Giuseppe_Zola_Hagar_und_Ismael_in_der_Wüste-1598x900

Last Sunday I preached on the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar from the family of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 21:8-21). We spend a great deal of time on the Isaac story — the promise of God to make Abraham the father of a great nation — but, we often overlook the Ishmael story. God also promised to make Ishmael the father of a great nation. And, Ishmael as part of Abraham’s household is circumcised as part of God’s covenant with Abraham. In addition, Isaac and Ishmael never fight, and both attend the burial of their father Abraham. What does this Ishmael story say about our attitudes toward the descendants of Ishmael, the people of the Arab countries? Listen to the podcast and let me know what you think.

Sermon: What Does the Lord Require of You?

I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow based on Micah 6:1-8. In light of current events, and the divisions within our culture, God’s people need to hear again the call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. I hope your Sunday is glorious!

What Does The Lord Require of You?
Micah 6:1-8 NRSV

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Called To Testify

We lived in Stone Mountain, Georgia when I was subpoenaed to testify in a murder trial. I did not know the defendant, but I knew his parents. They were calling every witness they could to try to prevent their son, who had killed his wife, from being sent to prison. I was called to testify that I would be available to counsel and guide the young man should the judge sentence him to probation. It seemed like a long shot to me, and in the end it was. The judge sentenced the husband to life in prison. His family wept, while on the other side of the courtroom, the slain woman’s family celebrated.

What we encounter today in this passage from Micah 6, is no less dramatic than my courtroom experience years ago.

In verses 1-2, the prophet Micah says to God’s people —

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

So, God calls on the mountains, hills, and foundations of the earth to be witnesses to the great case against Israel. (And, probably Israel here means both Israel and Judah because the prophet Micah preached about the judgment on both kingdoms.)

In verse 3 God asks rhetorically —

“O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

Then, in verses 3-5, God recalls three major events in the life of His people when God saved them from certain disaster and destruction. The first was when God used Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead Israel from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The second was when Balak, king of Moab, tried to hire Balaam, a prophet who listened to God, to curse Israel as they made their way to the Promised Land.

And, the third event was when Joshua led the nation of Israel from Shittim, crossing the Jordan, and finally stopping in Gilgal in the Land of Promise.

While we might lump all those stories together as part of the Exodus/Promised Land narrative, God breaks down the narrative into its component parts to remind Israel that every step along the way God had intervened and saved them.

But now it’s Israel’s turn to testify. And in verses 6-7, Israel asks indignantly —

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Micah is probably representing what he has heard from his countrymen a hundred times over. They don’t get why God has an issue with them. And, of course, they jump right to how they do worship, because they think they’ve been doing worship quite well, thank you!

So, they begin reasonably — “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?

These are, of course, the standard and typical offerings presented to God. Yearling calves, offered on the altar.

But then, they get snarky —  “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?” they ask sarcastically.

Rams and oil are offered to God in Temple worship, but not by the thousands and ten thousands. No, these are people who are put out that God dares to question how they do worship, because, of course, they’ve been doing worship at the Temple since Solomon was king — over 200 years at this point.

But then, they go too far. “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

While the firstborn was dedicated to God, the firstborn (or any child or person) was expressly forbidden to be used as a sacrifice. Other nations around them offered child-sacrifices, often to Moloch, but Israel was prohibited from doing so. Some scholars think this sentence indicates they might have (and we know they did at one time), but others think this is the ultimate outrageous rebuttal to God’s criticism of them.

But now it’s Micah’s turn. In verse 8, Micah stops speaking the very words of God, and rather plainly observes —

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

In other words, “You know what to do, and it has little to do with what happens inside the Temple and everything to do with how you live your lives.” My paraphrase.

So, let’s look at what God requires, then and now.

First, there are three verbs in the second part of verse 8: Do, love, and walk. All action verbs. All with objects or modifiers. All indicating real life actions, not ritual affectations.

So, let’s break them down.

Do Justice

I’m not using my favorite translation, the New International Version, because I think the NIV misses the translation here. In the NIV the text reads “live justly.” But, Micah says God requires that we “do justice.”

Of course, theologians have often been accused of “straining at gnats and swallowing camels” (I think Jesus said something like that), but here I believe the distinction is critical to understanding what God is saying.

There is a difference in “living justly” and being required to “do justice.” Here’s what I think the distinction is: “living justly” implies that while I go about my individual life, I’m to do things correctly. Now, that certainly is true, but “doing justice” shifts the emphasis from my individual everyday life to an intentional assignment to make sure justice gets done.

As in our day, life in Israel 700 or so years before Christ contained not only individual injustice, but systemic injustice. Their injustice was like ours — the powerful abused those least able to stand up for themselves.

In Chapter 3, Micah notes:

“Listen, you rulers of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel! For you ought to know what is right, but you hate good and love evil. You have devoured My people’s flesh; you have flayed the skin off them, and the flesh off their bones.”

In 3:9, Micah continues:

“Hear this, you rulers of the House of Jacob, you chiefs of the House of Israel, who detest justice and make crooked all that is straight, who build Zion with crime, Jerusalem with iniquity! Her rulers judge for gifts, her priests give rulings for a fee, and her prophets divine for pay…”

The poor were exploited, those with cases to be heard had to bribe the judge to get a favorable ruling, and even in the Temple priests and prophets demanded more than their normal support to do their jobs.

Micah rails against this type of injustice which is built into the Temple, the courts, and society in general. Remember, the prophets generally brought three charges against God’s people regardless of when they prophesied: 1) they worshiped idols; 2) they worshiped insincerely; and, 3) they did not care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the stranger. Here Micah speaks of all three transgressions and failures.

To do justice means to ensure that everyone — rich, poor, powerful, or humble — has an equal place at God’s table. Old Testament law provided numerous ways for the poor to be fed, the widows to be cared for, the orphans to be nurtured, and the stranger to be welcomed. But, over and over, Israel’s spiritual and civic leaders bend the rules for their own benefit, while at the same time pretending to be righteous and upright. Jesus will condemn this same hypocrisy in the first century, 700 years later.

God’s requirement to “do justice” is not directed at our modern political parties, civic leaders, or social trendsetters. This is a requirement of God’s people. This is our duty, our job, our responsibility.

In LaGrange, Georgia last week, the chief of police, Louis Dekmar, apologized to the African American citizens of LaGrange on behalf of the city and the police department. He apologized that his department did nothing to protect a black teenager named Austin Callaway in 1940. Callaway had been charged with offending a white woman, and had been placed in the LaGrange city jail. That night, 6 white men with one gun, held the jailer at gunpoint, forcing him to open the jail and release Callaway to them. Later Callaway was found shot several times. He was transported to the hospital where he died of gunshot wounds. Chief Dekmar found there were no case notes, no investigation, and no one was ever arrested for the murder of Austin Callaway. That is an example of systemic injustice. But the courageous apology of a white police chief brought some justice to that community 77 years later.

But if we are not in positions of authority to see that justice is done in our social settings and systems, still we are required to be working to bring about changes in our society so that justice is done, and so that all share God’s blessings, all feed at God’s table, and so that all — not just some — flourish in God’s creation.

Of course, justice also means that good is valued and evil is judged. That’s a part of justice, too. That aspect of justice keeps our society ordered, and our social corrections proportional.

Justice then, is both systemic and personal.

Which brings us to the second requirement —

Love Kindness (Mercy)

No translation is perfect, and here the New Revised Standard Version lets me down. The Hebrew word translated “kindness” here is the word “hesed” which means “lovingkindness.” But, I guess it sounded awkward to say, “Love lovingkindness.” But lovingkindness also means mercy, so the good old King James Version gets it right when it translates this phrase to “Love mercy.”

And, loving mercy goes hand in hand with doing justice, obviously. If you just do justice — especially that which judges and sorts out good from evil — with no allowance for mercy, kindness, and forgiveness — then you have missed the example of God’s own lovingkindness and mercy.

That’s the point here — we do what God does. We “do justice,” but we “love mercy.” That sounds to me like mercy might be as important, if not more so, than doing justice. Justice always has to be tempered with mercy or we become a society with no heart, no compassion, no empathy.

Dr. Richard Hayes of Duke University writes of mercy — “Mercy precedes everything: that, and only that, is why the announcement of the kingdom of heaven is good news.” — (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pg. 103.)

The story is told of two ancient rabbis who were walking together one day. One bemoaned the fact that they no longer had the Temple in which to worship God. “But,” the other reassured his colleague, “we still have hesed.” His point was, that even if there was no Temple in which to worship, they could still perform acts of mercy and lovingkindness.

Do justice. Love mercy. Do we love mercy, or do we extend mercy as a last, begrudging resort, just because sometimes we have to?

Walk Humbly with Your God

Then Micah adds the final requirement — to walk humbly with your God. “Walk” of course is an analogy for the way in which we live our lives. We speak of people who are hypocritical because they “talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk.”

The idea of walking with God has its origins in the Garden of Eden where God walked with Adam and Eve each evening. Our walk with God is not only our conduct before him, but our fellowship with Him.

There are, I suppose, any number of ways we could walk with God. Certainly we could walk regularly with God. Adam and Eve did so until they sinned, and then they hid from God.

We could walk gratefully with God. Scripture in both Old and New Testaments is filled with exhortations to give thanks, and prayers and songs that give voice to thankfulness.

We could also walk confidently with God. John writes in 1 John 1:5-6 — “This is how we know we are in Him: Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did.” So our walk with God gives us confidence in our relationship to God.

But while we might walk regularly, or gratefully, or confidently, Micah reminds us that what is required of us is that we walk humbly with our God.

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the virtue of humility may be defined as: “A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake.” St. Bernard defines it: “A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.” These definitions coincide with that given by St. Thomas: “The virtue of humility”, he says, “Consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior”   — (Devine, A. (1910). Humility. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 28, 2017 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07543b.htm)

And there it is: humility is knowing our limitations, especially in light of God’s limitless love, grace, and mercy.

To walk humbly with God is to fellowship with God knowing that our relationship is not between peers, but of Creator to created, and of Redeemer to redeemed.

Walking humbly with God also reminds us that God has acted justly and shown mercy on our behalf.

One ancient rabbi said that Micah had taken the 613 laws of Moses and reduced them to their essence when he observed —

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?

When you watch the news this week, ask yourself, “Are we as a nation doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?” And if the answer is “no” or even “maybe not” then we must remind ourselves that God has shown us what is good. And that good means that we must do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. That is what the Lord requires of us.

Sermon: God’s Indictment, Instruction and Invitation

Last Sunday I preached from Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 NIV. Amazingly, the circumstances in Isaiah’s day in 742 BC were similar to those in 21st century America. Politicians disagreed on how best to provide security for the nation of Judah. Strategic alliances to combat national enemies such as Assyria, and even Israel, were formed and then dissolved. The nation’s economy was rigged in favor of the well-to-do, and the weakest in Judah’s society — widows and orphans — were being cheated and oppressed.

But, in the midst of political, economic, and spiritual turmoil, God has a word for his people. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God condemns their religious practice because it was not consistent with their conduct. Or maybe their worship was consistent with their conduct because both were lacking in obedience to God and compassion toward others. Here’s the audio of the sermon:

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Feed the Homeless to Turn Night into Day

Raleigh police stop food distribution to the homeless by a local group who has been doing this for years.
Raleigh police stop food distribution to the homeless by a local group who has been doing this for years.

Yesterday the city of Raleigh, North Carolina chose to make feeding the hungry a crime. The mayor and city council of Raleigh ought to read today’s lectionary reading from Isaiah 58:9b-14. Isaiah instructs Israel to stop oppressing people, to feed the hungry and meet the needs of the marginalized. Then Israel’s light will rise and their difficulties which seem like a long night will turn to the glorious light of day. Here’s the audio from my sermon today: