Virtual Church

We had church online today.

To some, this doesn’t sound like a big deal. Maybe you’ve been “attending church” online for quite some time. Lots of churches stream services, and some of them even have online-only services.

We, of course, are having church online because of the coronavirus outbreak. Out of an abundance of caution, and particularly for the safety of our more vulnerable members, we are gathering to worship virtually rather than in person.

The Church has always used the latest technology to get the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ out. One of the more prominent examples is how the invention of the printing press enabled the writings of the Reformation period to spread far and wide. In our age, the Church has wisely made use of the Internet, including web sites, podcasts, live streaming, emails, and even online tithing.

But having services online is a different thing. Whether you call it Mass, Divine Service, Morning Prayer, or even just “church”, the weekly worship of the people of God on Sunday (or Saturday, with a nod to my Seventh-Day Adventist friends) is an inherently physical activity. Beyond just gathering together, we sit, stand, kneel, exchange smiles and glances, raise hands, fold hands, shake hands, and lay hands on each other in prayer.

Of course, the physical nature of Christian spirituality is most accentuated in the sacraments. In Baptism, we are united to Christ in his death and resurrection. Baptism is connected in Scripture to the flood story and the traversing of the sea by the people of Israel. We also recognize implicit connections to the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1, and the washing of Naaman to cure his leprosy. We are connected to Christ and to each other most intimately in the Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion or Eucharist), as Jesus offers his very self to us. Again, we see the connections in Jesus’ ministry everywhere, from his table fellowship with sinners, to the feedings of the five and four thousand, to his post-resurrection meals with his disciples (here, here, and here).

From this, it seems obvious that it would be wrong to think that worship is a purely spiritual activity and that we are merely carrying it out through physical limitations. No—worship is an inherently physical and spiritual activity carried out by physical and spiritual beings.

We see this in the Bible from beginning to end. Increasingly, biblical scholars are recognizing that the account of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3 represents the first “temple” where humans worshiped and communed with God (for a great overview of this theme in the Genesis story and throughout scripture, see Gregory Beale’s book The Temple and the Church’s Mission). Tending the garden temple was a priestly activity carried out by Adam and Eve. They had intimate communion with God as he walked among them. They were charged by God to expand the boundaries of the garden temple to the ends of the earth.

Sin resulted in separation from God and enmity between humans, as well as between humans and the creation they were supposed to steward. Relevant to our current circumstance, though viruses undoubtedly existed for billions of years before humankind, separation from the intimate presence of God results in our susceptibility to decay and death. And thus today this virus results in our physical separation–separation from the physical contact God designed us for and for which we desperately need.

It is fantastic that we had the ability, as many other churches did this morning, to meet virtually. Jesus joins us together as his people no matter what the circumstance. But we look forward to the day when we can meet together again in person as God intended, as he heals the brokenness of our relationships because of sin by the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As we do, we should be especially mindful today of the future promise that what happened to Jesus in his resurrection will happen to us and to the whole creation, as God renews heaven and earth. On that day, we will no longer fear sin, death, or viruses. Relationships will be fully healed.

In the meantime, we continue to love our neighbors as yourselves by washing hands, social distancing, staying home when sick, and reaching out to others in need in whatever way possible.

God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble.

Prayer and the Coronavirus

This past week, a stir was created about the following tweet of this photo:

I’m not interested in either supporting or attacking the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the context of this post. Similarly, though photo-ops of politicians praying is always a little dicey (though see David French’s take on this), I’m also not interested here in the question of why the photo was taken.

For me the real issue of interest is why a photo of politicians and others tasked to respond to the outbreak bowed in prayer should mean we are “screwed.” To be fair, it’s not a secret that the GOP doesn’t have the greatest track record on issues of science policy. If that’s your beef then I cannot argue otherwise.

But here the issue seems to be that they were praying in the first place. The implication is that there would be no science-based medical response, only prayers. Again, maybe the administration’s response will turn out to be flawed—or maybe it already is—but prayer isn’t the reason.

Lots of people these days seem to think that Christians just pray whenever something goes wrong and then sit around waiting for God to do something. Caveat again—sometimes promises of prayers do sound very hollow, especially when coming out of the mouths of politicians who are ostensibly in a position to enact policy to solve problems.

But this fundamentally misunderstands what the vast majority of Christians, both now and through the centuries, have believed about what prayer actually does. Prayer is not a substitute for action. Rather, it is a preparation for it and often a summons to it. Conversely, those who pray and then do not respond to the evils of the world with action are not behaving biblically. Prayer and action are supposed to go hand-in-glove.

Prayer is fundamentally about orienting ourselves in relationship to God. Part of that is indeed asking him to protect us from all manner of ills and enemies, including viruses. But we know that protection usually comes about because of medicine and experienced doctors and surgeons, which though of proximate human origin are ultimately good gifts from the Creator. As a Christian, I do believe that God can heal people without such intervention, but we are not enjoined by Scripture to expect such a thing automatically. So, the vast majority of Christians both pray and seek the best medical attention they have available—and there is no cognitive dissonance necessary. Most prayers for healing even begin with words such as “guide the hands of the doctors and the nurses” or something similar.

So I am happy for our leaders to pray in a situation like this—but then they need to get moving, with God’s help at their backs, to mobilize the scientific and medical communities to combat the spread of this virus. To do otherwise would be irresponsible, including in the eyes of God.

Responses like the above tweet are not just ill-conceived—they perpetuate the perceived war between science and religion and help to convince religious people that scientists and science are against them. Whether you believe in God and prayer or not, since people who do are not going away, it’s better to not drive this wedge further. Better to let those of us who are scientists in religious communities try to educate our brothers and sisters better in the proper relationship between science and their faith.

So, in liturgical fashion, let us pray for a resolution to the coronavirus outbreak:

That our leaders may make wise decisions informed by science, medicine, and common sense,
let us pray to the Lord.

That our medical professionals may be kept from sickness and have everything needed to treat the ill, let us pray to the Lord.

That those who contract the virus remember to stay at home, get rest, and have plenty of fluids, and that they may have a speedy recovery, let us pray to the Lord.

That the family and friends of those who are deceased from the virus may be comforted with love from God and neighbor, let us pray to the Lord.

That we may all remember to wash our hands and keep prudent distance from others, in order to protect and safeguard the health of our neighbors, let us pray to the Lord.

Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord.