It was a pleasure to join Greg Musselman on Closer to the Fire, the Voice of the Martyrs Canada podcast, to discuss the public health orders and the Church in Canada in light of Pastor James Coates’ detention in Alberta.
A foundation for understanding the Church within and outside the walls of the sanctuary is the three commandments emphasized by Jesus:
- Love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength (Mark 12:30).
- Love our neighbours as ourselves (Mark 12:31).
- Love one another, for by this the world will know we are Christ’s disciples (John 13:34-35).
Provincial health emergency measures have not changed the truth of those directives. The expression of all three for Christians, congregations, and other ministries, have for weeks been adjusted by the temporary closing of buildings.
How might those three commandments inform us in the current and coming days as we transition from healthy isolation to what one hopes will be healthy reopening?
Our love for God will inform our desire to act for Him. Paul refers to us as being citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20), functioning as ambassadors of reconciliation on earth (1 Corinthians 5:20). Jesus’ ministry of inviting people to be reconciled with God has been entrusted to us – the Church, the Body of Christ – as His representatives. As ambassadors for Jesus, we are called to live and behave in a manner that both honours God and appeals on His behalf to others.
God’s love for us inspires us to similarly show love, grace, and kindness toward our neighbours, whether they follow Him or not. It’s kind of like combining the golden rule of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12) with forgive us, Lord, as we forgive others (Matthew 6:12). Love for our neighbours suggests a few things to bear in mind in the context of the current health and reopening measures.
Masks. There is ongoing discussion about whether to wear a mask that covers nose and mouth when in shared spaces. The conversation involves two kinds of masks.
Properly worn, medical N95s protect against droplets getting into the nose or mouth of the wearer, as well as preventing the wearer from spreading droplets. Medical N95s are most needed by health care and other professionals who have frequent close proximity interaction with a variety of people who are not healthy. N95s are also worn by carpenters and farmers who need to protect their lungs against fine particles such as wood dust or grain dust. Current supply concerns suggest N95s be held for those most in need. As supply is available, I can envision pastors, chaplains and other Christian caregivers potentially wearing N95s for a time as their in-person contacts increase.
Surgical style masks protect against droplets being transmitted by the wearer onto others. That’s why surgeons wear them! Often, for hours on end. Whether disposable or washable, these masks cover nose and mouth to serve the purpose of protecting others against the wearer breathing or speaking ‘moistly’ on them. The evidence suggests many infected with Covid-19 may either exhibit mild or no symptoms, which means we are all potential spreaders. Did you know that in Canada church-related gatherings were at the heart of significant super-spreader events?
A church in Calgary, AB legally hosted under fifty people for a missionary report. 80% of attendees, including two who worked at a long term care home and one who worked at a meat processing plant were infected. Within days Covid-19 spread into the long term care home and the meat packing plant, wreaking havoc in both as it had in the congregation.
A funeral held in St. John’s, NL a few days before gathering size was restricted resulted in 44 people testing positive for Covid-19, the largest outbreak on the island.
Similar stories have been reported from religious gatherings in other countries, including several infected in Texas as the result of a priest who did not know he was Covid-19 positive leading mass and sharing communion.
History and medicine suggest a second wave is likely. It’s best to be prepared, not afraid, and take appropriate precautions as part of our witness for Christ.
Some churches will continue with only online gatherings for a while after buildings are permitted to reopen, particularly if the permissible size for gatherings would be awkward. For example, in Alberta congregations can gather (respecting distancing requirements) in groups up to fifty or 30% of capacity, whichever is less. Large congregations have decided to continue meeting online.
Some churches will continue with drive-in services. When passing food and drink is permitted for places of worship, perhaps drive-thru communion will be added.
Other church properties may facilitate open air gatherings.
As people who care for and about other people, I anticipate Christians who are able will wear a mask, not because we accept one side in the mask debate but because our first concern is loving protection for others. We’ll be gracious to those who are not able to wear masks, such as asthmatics, autistics and others with medical conditions that make mask wearing untenable or dangerous. A Christian sister believes God has told her not to wear a mask. Responsibly, for the well-being of others, she has decided not to attend places where masks are required or recommended.
Love for others and ourselves makes it reasonable to posit we will continue to maintain physical distancing measures and wash our hands regularly.
These simple actions may be intended to protect neighbours or to protect our brothers and sisters in Christ. It seems, at least for the time being, masks have become part of our witness for Jesus.
But there is more to our witness than masks, two meters of separation, and hand washing.
Many churches and ministries serve their neighbours, and have continued doing so throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. They operate food banks, provide shopping for seniors, and more – for non-religionists, co-religionists, or both.
But what about that kind of love for one another within the Church that lets the world know we are Christ’s disciples? What might we Christians do that is directed toward recognizing the unique relationship we have as parts of the one Body of Christ in witness to the world?
It has been a privilege to participate in a number of online gatherings with leaders of varying capacities within Church and government, and I’m a lifelong follower of news reports for Canada and the rest of the world. Here are some take-a-ways on how we might love one another in a way that witnesses to our discipleship.
Some in the Church are struggling through this emergency; spiritually, emotionally, physically. We are redeemed, not flawless. Reach out. Check in on a friend, or be the one who asks for a little support yourself. Phone calls, texts, emails, and video, front lawn and window visits have made a difference, and still can. Running errands for those who are unable to do so for themselves can be a lifeline. People notice.
Two months in, some pastors are still struggling with technology connection opportunities. It can be discouraging to deal with tech hiccups when others seem to have studio quality production. A little help from those who’ve got it figured out will be appreciated. Offer it. Check in on your brothers and sisters in leadership.
Some congregations are struggling financially. Pastors in need would value the help of others who have successfully applied for available temporary government funding, or those who have set up e-donation opportunities. A few would also benefit from financial support made available by congregations that are not struggling. Your congregation might have limited extra to help out, but maybe several congregations working together might combine to keep the doors open for a new or historic congregation or ministry in your neighbourhood or serving another.
On the global level, remember the persecuted (Hebrews 13:3) and remember the poor (Galatians 2:10).
In many nations Christians live day-to-day on whatever work they can find or what little is made from being able to sell items along a roadside or at a small market. Many of these opportunities have been closed down due to emergency health measures. Support from other parts of the Body of Christ has become essential to survival, and a witness to their neighbours.
There are ministries that have ‘feet on the ground’ in these countries, and emergency response funds in place to help in this time of need, whether serving the persecuted, the poor, or both. You can check with the Canadian offices of Voice of the Martyrs, Open Doors, Partners International, The Salvation Army, and more. Your own congregation or denomination may have international contacts as well. Now is a good time to make a contribution. [Did you know that when Paul first implemented Sunday collections within the Church it was for the support of brothers and sisters in Jerusalem who had been cast out of their places of worship, their places of work, and their homes (1 Corinthians 16:1-3)?]
Vitally, pray. Pray to the Lord God whom we love with our heart and soul and mind and strength. Pray about how to best love your particular neighbours. Pray about how to participate in loving one another in the Body of Christ.
And, act. May we show our faith through our ambassadorial good deeds and our good deeds toward our brothers and sisters (James 2:18).
As governments restore trust to the citizenry who elected them, it’s up to each one of us to be a trustworthy citizen, and a trustworthy ambassador for Him whom we trust has also established our citizenship in heaven.
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3)
“What a difference a day makes, twenty-four little hours, brought the sun and the flowers, where there used to be rain,” or snow in the more recent context of the Great White North. I remember my Dad playing that 1959 Grammy winner sung by Dinah Washington. Use simple math to multiply that difference-making day by a week and we have the alarm encountered by hundreds of thousands of Canadians crossing the border to return home from March Break, or a snowbird winter, when informed at the border they are to go home, go directly home, and stay home.
Over the last week Canadians have been witnesses to the rise of a new statistical interest, a fresh constitutional question, and the coining of a new word, “covidiot.”
Covidiot. The first time I heard the word two other songs came immediately to mind. The first, Green Day’s 2004 hit American Idiot declares, “Don’t wanna be an American idiot.” The second, Weird Al Yankovich’s 2006 parody hit Canadian Idiot, which similarly asserts, “Don’t wanna be a Canadian idiot.”
The word covidiot stems from the behaviour of Americans and Canadians on the beaches of Florida after a “stay home” and “keep physical distance when in public” plea was made by government and medical authorities. Similar behaviour was repeated this recent warm and sunny weekend in Vancouver, and in Toronto with the release of a new video game.
Across the country federal and provincial leaders have requested, or ordered under authority of legal enforcement, that gatherings be constrained to below a selected number – starting at 250 and working down to fifty, twenty, ten, then five, all with minimal spacing of two metres between participants.
Many Christian leaders have adapted to this request by moving Sunday services and weekday gatherings (whether church, bible school, college or university) online, by holding parking lot or drive-through communion, setting up social media communication formats, and inviting congregants to support food banks and check-in on neighbours’ needs.
Other Christian leaders have defiantly stated they will not forsake the assembling together (Hebrews 10:25) of their flocks in person, stating they must obey God, rather than men (Acts 5:29).
Some Christian leaders are simply uncertain what to do in uncertain times.
And, that’s why I’m writing this. Some Christian leaders asked me for advice. Most particularly, they want to know whether the government can compromise our rights to freedom of religion (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, section 2(a)) and freedom of peaceful assembly (section 2 (c)).
The short answer is, “yes, the government can compromise those rights.” You will find more detail in my book Under Siege: Religious Freedom and the Church in Canada at 150 (1867–2017), but the key to that “yes” is found in section 1 of the Charter which reads, “The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
I suspect few Canadians or Canadian judges would disagree that the circumstances of Covid-19’s rapid spread demonstrably justify government taking legal action to constrain peaceful assembly for the purpose of public safety, provided the law is equally applied by the government making it, i.e. there are not exceptions for either non-religious groups or religious groups.
On the matter of freedom of religion, there is no constraint against finding alternative ways to engage and share religious beliefs and practices, which, as noted above, many churches have done.
The statistics supporting the government’s claim for reasonable limits on peaceful assembly are staggering, and staggeringly simple to understand.
According to the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centres for Disease Control, the average person who gets the flu will infect 1.3 other people. Take this out to ten generations (1 x 1.3 x 1.3 x 1.3 x 1.3 x 1.3 x 1.3 x 1.3 x 1.3 x 1.3)* and that person will spread the flu to 14 people. The incubation period for the flu is one to four days, so you might infect people before experiencing symptoms yourself. The hospitalization rate for flu is 2% of those infected. This is statistically the number taken into account in the design of hospital intensive care units – about twenty people in every one thousand, spaced out over a period of five to six months. The death rate is under 0.1%.
The W.H.O. and CDC have identified the statistical average infection rate for Covid-19 as 2 to 2.5 people. So the ten generation infection rate is (1 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2)* 1,024 to (1 x 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5)* 9,537. That’s a significant range, and a dramatic difference from the flu. The incubation period for Covid-19 is one to fourteen days, so you might infect people for up to two weeks before experiencing symptoms yourself, hence the significant range in ten generation infection rates. The hospitalization rate for Covid-19 is 19% – that’s 195 to 1,812 all in a matter of weeks if everyone were to go about our lives as normal (as we pretty much do with the flu). This is an influx for which the Canadian medical system is unprepared – as were China’s and Italy’s. Hence the requests and orders to stay at home and observe spacial distancing. The mortality rate for Covid-19? 1% to 3.4%, dependent on medical intervention when required. You do the math.
There is a vaccine for the flu. None yet exists for Covid-19.
In addition to the broad numbers above, there are risks based on demographics. Let me break it down based on one household, my own. In a matter of weeks I will move from one demographic category to a higher risk demographic when I turn 60. Males are already experiencing a higher mortality rate per capita from Covid-19 than females. My wife is already in the higher age risk demographic, suffered kidney failure three years ago and has had more than one issue with lung weakness (e.g. pleurisy and other bronchial ailments) putting her in one of the highest risk categories for women. Our daughter, in her thirties, is in a higher risk category because she smokes. Our grandson has a compromised immune system.
Now, think of how many people you know who are over sixty. Seventy. Eighty. How many you know who smoke? How many may have compromised immune systems evidenced by asthma, allergies, past illnesses, multiple sclerosis, cancer… the list goes on.
Governments in Canada are not trying to stop the sharing of the Gospel. They’re trying to stop the sharing of Covid-19.
Jesus left us with three great commandments. Love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength (Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:27). Love one another, and by this the world will know we are his disciples (John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17). And, love our neighbours as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:27). I explore how disciples might effectively live out these three concepts of love in my book Church in Society: First-Century Citizenship Lessons for Twenty-First-Century Christians, but here are a few thoughts for today.
Based on all of the above, here are two questions to ask in regard to gathering in a time when gathering is restricted. Is the Gospel being constrained by not gathering? Is it loving toward other disciples or toward our neighbours to gather?
Is this a time for Acts 5:29 defiance, like Peter and those with him in Jerusalem who were commanded by religious leaders to stop sharing the good news about Jesus Christ, or a time to heed the advice of Jesus and the apostles Paul and Peter concerning government?
Jesus told his followers to render unto Caesar (the government of Jesus’ day) the things that belong to Caesar (say, the government of our day), but not to give government the things that belong to God (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17).
The apostle Paul expressed, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” (Romans 13:1-3, ESV)
And the apostle Peter stated, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people… Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor.” (2 Peter 3:13-15, 17 ESV)
Rather than gather, this is a time to heed Paul’s advice to his protégé, Timothy:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2 ESV)
Pray for political and medical leaders who have accepted responsibility for all Canadians, including you and me. And, accept responsibility for yourself.
I don’t wanna be a Christian covidiot. I hope you don’t either.
*The math has been corrected. A friend pointed out that my first set of numbers did not include the 1 originating person with the flu or Covid-19.
“The law is a jealous mistress.” If a student hasn’t heard that quote before arriving in the hallowed hallways of her law school, she is likely to hear it on her very first day. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story coined the term in the talk he gave when he became a professor at Harvard University in 1829. Law students have been hearing it ever since. Story was noting the law, as study and profession, is demanding of time, thoughts and energy. Some have said, the law is all consuming.
If married, be assured your spouse will not be enamoured of the idea that you have a mistress, whether another woman, the law or any other obsession, particularly a mistress jealous of other interests or pursuits in your life.
Stipulating ten life-enriching commandments to the nation of Israel, God doubled down on recognition he is the only true God before bridging to the other eight directives. In doing so, he referred to himself as “a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4). Jesus was unwavering on this point, stating the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with the four alls of our existence – all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength (Luke 10:27). That’s the covenant.
It was in 1870 that Charles Dudley Warner turned the phrase, “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Warner was comparing an American political situation with his summer garden. The intermingling of untended berry plants led him to riff off of William Shakespeare, who wrote in The Tempest (Act 2, Scene 2) that “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” Whether facing life’s storms or seeking to escape them, people not expected to cooperate with one another may end up doing so for a variety of unintended reasons, particularly when it comes to politics.
The danger with a strange bedfellow is one’s unintended bedmate may well become one’s jealous mistress. An interest in politics can easily become overly partisan, inflaming a desire to make law with one another. In the grips of such passion, we are tempted to set aside an earlier covenant made with someone else. Politics, as hobby or profession, may entice any one of us away from Jesus, who loves us, gave himself for us, and requires from us all, all, all, all.
Manifest political partisanship seductively woos us to regard one political leader as saviour, and another as devil. Both are simply human. Neither is to be to us an idol.
It seems our forgetfulness of actual Saviour and Devil may rival the impetuous collective amnesia of the Israelites who demanded a golden calf be fashioned as their god, despite having been clearly told not to do so. And then doing it within clear sight of a cloud-cloaked mountain where Moses was meeting with the Lord their God, who had only recently delivered them by the hundreds of thousands from centuries of captivity in a foreign land.
I cannot imagine that all of the two million-plus people at the base of Mount Sinai cried out for the calf. More likely, a vocal few rallied part of the crowd – some with convictions on the issue, others less so but inclined to go with the flow of friends or family – and the ensuing mob action pressured Aaron. There were, no doubt, a large number who looked to Aaron, a recognized leader in their community, for guidance. Aaron instead acted on the opinion of the enraged crowd, however misshapen or misleading. Aaron, a spiritual leader of the people, allowed intimidation to steer him to do something other than trust God’s word.
Today’s rallying cries may come through social media memes, tweets, blogs and videos or public statements by people we are convinced can be trusted. Perhaps, they are on the saviour’s team. Maybe they’re on the Saviour’s team, too. We need to dispassionately assess whether their agitation is intended to arouse in us desires that would lure us to join in the pursuit of a contemporary golden calf. What’s their motivation? Who do they want us to align ourselves with? Where will following lead us? We are to embrace neither idols, other gods nor a different saviour. We have one God. And he has commissioned us to be his ambassadors, ambassadors of reconciliation, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).
The authors of the New Testament inspire our participation in society as good citizens. In a democracy, rendering unto Caesar (Matthew 22:21a) means our participation can extend to any and all stages of political involvement, but as Christians our participation must be accompanied by rendering unto God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21b).
Before we take action that will lead others who trust our voice, whether through speech, tweet or post, it’s our responsibility to ascertain if the expression is suitable to be shared by an ambassador of reconciliation? Or does the message originate from the tantalizing quest of a jealous mistress or strange bedfellow to stimulate within us a craving for their recommended golden calf?
The Lord our God is a jealous God. He encourages our contribution to the good of the world around us, and endorses no competitors for his tender affections.