It was back in early February when the elders at Burning Hearts met for our monthly Elders' meeting. News of the COVID-19 coronavirus had just started to circulate. Based upon how many people (at that point) had come down with the virus and died, it seemed much more likely that one might be killed by a lightning strike or a falling meteorite. A month later, as the elders again met, the threat of the virus seemed much more ominous. And so it was that by the fourth Sunday in March, Burning Hearts, like nearly every other church in America, was "closed down." It was only after many weeks that I learned that the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lancaster City had never closed. As I know that church's pastor (Ed Bailey) well, I corresponded with him about what they (at Bethel) had been doing. Feeling increasingly more and more uncomfortable with the idea of staying closed, and knowing the May Elders' meeting was coming up, Ruth and I decided to attend Bethel to see what was happening. There we saw a small attendance (of 20 or so), with some wearing masks, everyone keeping social distancing, and the pastor not wearing a mask. The singing was so-so (not many singers) but the preaching was terrific. We then attended the next two Sundays as well. And now, as of last Sunday, Burning Hearts is also meeting.
With that as the background, here are some reflections on all of this…
1. I believe that most people, be they in medicine or in government, initially truly believed what we all were hearing: that this was going to be a pandemic on the level of the Spanish Influenza of 1918-20, killing somewhere around 30 million worldwide and probably 1.5-2.2 million here in the U.S. We all heard that and we all believed that. And thus the immediate actions to "flatten the curve" so as to not overwhelm the medical community or its resources were immediately heeded by nearly all.
2. We at Burning Hearts (like most churches) took the "stay at home" order to include churches as well. We didn't hear "churches" or "houses of worship" mentioned among those "essential businesses" and so we wrongly concluded that we could not meet. Only more recently did we come to learn that in Pennsylvania the governor never did close down the churches and that churches were considered "exempt" from the stay at home order. Governor Wolf, just last week, stated quite clearly that he never closed the churches. But we were under that assumption and what we were hearing about pastors in other states being arrested for violating "stay at home" orders confirmed our (false) assumption. Our daughter's challenge to me (mentioned last Sunday) to "open church" knowing that the Department of Justice would back us, was part of the reasoning why the elders unanimously voted to reopen on June 7, though that date was later moved up to May 24. And, as you saw last Sunday, apparently you all were, by and large, more than ready to see us reopen.
3. A good that came out of this period of non-meeting as a church body was the development of a means to broadcast the praise and preaching. Words cannot adequately express Nate Garland's and my appreciation for Dave Graves. Dave was the one who week after week took hours, editing and preparing for broadcast what we would submit to him. Some churches have made use of Facebook, but YouTube was Dave's social media medium of choice. GREAT JOB, DAVE! As we now work our way back into LIVE praise and preaching, we are in the process of making certain that from here on out, EVERY Sunday's meeting may be broadcast. This is something we probably should have done years ago, but it took the coronavirus to push us into it!
4. Three times during these weeks, I made the round of church homes: first to those in my shepherding group (each elders has such a group of church members), and then two times to the entire church body, members and non-members. These were really good times, from my perspective. I could not have done this in a church of 800 or 1,500. But with 120+ from roughly 50+ homes, it was doable, and pleasurable. Indeed, I am resolved to do it again when there is NO PANDEMIC. Once I get that orange drop cookie frosting recipe further refined…that would be a good time! Yum!
5. As time goes by, it has become clear that the risk of the coronavirus is mainly to those much older with pre-existing conditions. Take away those conditions and there is little, if anything, to fear. So with that, the issues of social distancing and using masks is certain, over time, to fade away. At the June Elders' meeting (later this week) moving back to one service, plus the idea of setting a Children's' Church restart date will be discussed. For the time being, THANK YOU ALL for not only your enthusiasm at coming back to church, but for your support of the church and its leadership in the different decisions we have made. Thank you also for your strong financial support during the weeks we did not meet! I heard on the radio that 9% of evangelical churches in the U.S. have experienced a 75% or greater drop in contributions over these past 10 weeks. That certainly was not our experience. So thank you!
6. Now as to WHY God planned/allowed this coronavirus, or the nations' response to it, that is unclear. Certainly it has been and is being used to humble many people (governmental officials, some in the medical community, many business owners, etc). "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" is the teaching of scripture and there has come a lot of humbling with this virus. But is that WHY this took place? Pastor Ed Bailey (see the lead paragraph to this article) believes this has all been to "test the church." He is convinced that the church, by and large, has failed the test: acquiescing to perceived governmental demands when it need not have done so. That's one take on the virus. It is hard to say. I certainly do know that should there be a resurgence/spike in the coronavirus here in Lancaster County I don't see Burning Hearts so quickly closing its doors.
7. Many people have remarked on the good that has come from all of this: dads around more to spend time with the family, people going for walks and actually meeting neighbors, etc. Certainly the slower pace of everything has been helpful to life. There are fewer distractions. School age children have been spared (along with their parents) of going to a long list of activities. 2020 will most certainly go down as "the best of times…the worst of times" (Dickens). Personally, I was able to knock out many projects around the house that I did not expect to get done until late in the year, and I would guess the same was for many of you.
Many people have tried to politicize the pandemic and our various governmental leaders' responses to it. I believe we would do well to grant that every one of them has been doing their best to act/rule/lead in the way they believe is best. Clearly they have not all been in agreement. Let us not forget that none of us, just as none of them, has been through this before. So there has been a lot to learn. With that in mind we need to show grace to all.
And let's pray this doesn't repeat itself!