Circle back: Sustained by Reformed theology during COVID-19

It is a privilege to work from home. Healthcare workers, grocery store clerks, those still able to work in food service, police officers, fire fighters and sanitation workers do not have that privilege. Perhaps our first order of business and our daily prayer during all this is to remember them and those who cannot shelter-at-home. We pray that the God whose eye is on the sparrow keeps a watch on each and all of them as they labor faithfully in this time.

I am grateful for technology, but having to use so much of it each day is draining. As great as it is to be able to “do church” in many and various ways in this time, in-person encounters and showing up in each other’s lives is what being Easter people is all about. The church is sustained by in-person encounters. The disciples on the road to Emmaus, Mary and the disciples at the empty tomb, the disciples who are found by Jesus even when their locked door is barred, the disciples on the shoreline who encounter Jesus as they share breakfast — all of these lives are sustained by in-person encounters. While we are all learning how to do church through livestreams or vide0-splicing or daily prayers and devotions made available online, one tends to feel like a host of a broken show coming out to break the ice and tell jokes and reassure the crowd until things start moving again.

One thing I have found (again) are the gifts that Reformed tradition has always emphasized are right now what sustain us through this time. Churches cannot host programs, interesting events, special speakers or visiting groups right now. Our life together has been stripped down to its barest of bones. What is left? Worship in our homes around a table, something Calvin envisioned for morning and evening prayers for every household. The story of Scripture and its amazing relevance to this time. After Easter worship I received a message from a young adult church member who wrote to me that during our effort to share communion, he prayed and tried to “imagine what it was like amidst the grief, chaos, confusion, disbelief, amazement, wonderment, awe, of Mary Magdalene and Simon Peter and the disciples on the first Easter day and found that we are closer to that time than we have ever been in our lives. Closer to understanding God’s presence in our world and closer to understanding the words of Scripture.” Closer to the risen Christ in this time than ever before. Hmmm. That’ll preach.

We are sustained by worship. Almost everything else the church does could be replicated by other organizations. Not worship. We are sustained in this time by music and singing. “Now Thank We All our God” was written by a pastor during the Thirty Years War who was burying up to 1000 people from his community over the course of each year. How could such beauty and such thanksgiving be voiced in such a time of destruction and death? When the community cannot gather to bury the dead and to offer these lives to God in thanksgiving, perhaps we understand how Martin Rinkart could now “thank God” in the midst of such troubled times, and perhaps we can understand why such notes sustain us too in our own troubled times.

We are sustained by the preached Word. Sheltering at home has compelled me to put together a portable pastor’s study, and what goes in my portable bag are not the latest Pew Research analytics on religion or articles on cutting-edge resources on how to stay relevant in the 21st-century American religious landscape or the newest studies on reaching the “nones” or millennials. What goes in my portable bag, what sustains me and sustains my congregation, are the gospel of Jesus Christ unfolded in Scripture and buoyed by the theology of the church and sustained by our rich worshipping tradition. That is all that will fit. None of the rest of the stuff matters at this point. Only faithful preaching, prayers without ceasing and a worshipping tradition that offers us sung words like these: Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed, for I am thy God, and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand (from the second verse of “How Firm a Foundation”).

And I am so grateful for a theological tradition and theological institutions whose core subject matters remain centered in the interpretation and proclamation of Scripture, rich theological resources and sustained theological reflection with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, rich worship and the care of souls. At this point, those are invaluable gifts from God, the only tools we have to ply in this moment, and they are the central resources holding us together in the midst of this pandemic. Who knew?

Who knew that Scripture, worship and the rich voices of the living and the dead are what will sustain us through this time? Who knew that the gospel boldly proclaimed and the sacrament creatively administered are the ways God will lift us up, get us through and hold us together — in this time, and in all times.