Does Anyone Think Church Gatherings are ‘Essential’? Who’s Speaking Up?

Does Anyone Think Church Gatherings are ‘Essential’?  Who’s Speaking Up?

I shared a link to my commentary and connected editorial (by Matt Walsh) on Facebook last night — but I know how quickly posts run through a person’s feed and quickly disappear.  So I am sending this out as a post because I, like Walsh, am deeply concerned that no specific conversation has occurred regarding the benefit and Constitutional legality of continuing church assemblage — despite the risks — during this coronavirus pandemic.

I had assumed that churches would be considered an “essential social service” and that any mandatory shut down would be resisted.  Necessarily, “crowd considerations” would have been evaluated, with churches likely needing to be creative and/or take measures to accommodate the different situations that were arising.

But it never occurred to me that, based on numbers alone, church assemblage would be shuttered as if it were of no benefit to our neighbors, our rich and poor alike, our now-unemployed co-workers, our very society.

Opinion Writer Matt Walsh declares in this article, “As far as I know, no government at any level, anywhere in the nation, has deigned to label churches essential.  Our Founding Fathers, who gave the right to assemble and the right to practice religion pride of place in the Bill of Rights seemed to have disagreed.”

This is actually a discussion that SHOULD have been broached at the start of “shelter at home” orders, in my opinion.  I am guessing that the original “two-week” duration of time to Shelter-at-home during March was considered “short,” and clearly temporary, therefore becoming a significant factor in the deafening silence regarding this issue.  However, that length of time has now been extended for an additional 30 days.  And there is no clear statement that it will not, in some fashion, continue to be enforced for an additional and unspecified amount of time.  

In a society which considers physical food an essential for physical and mental well being — appropriately so — it is nonetheless truly unfortunate that ‘spiritual food’ is not given equal consideration as to how churches and fellowships might continue to reach out and offer comfort, support and stability to frightened and insecure people in this time of crisis.  Actually, I think it is beyond “unfortunate.”  I think it is a serious gap through which millions of people are falling with limited or no safety net, below.

Yes, online connection options are definitely “better than nothing.”   I give kudos, appreciation, and accolades to those church leaders who have worked diligently to create and maintain contact/support with their people through social media and online opportunities.  Yes, Romans 13:1 states, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God , and those which exist are established by God.” (NASB)

Authority established by God:  consider that phrase, for just a moment.  I propose that our houses of worship — FAR more than any government agency — have been ordained for this very purpose of bearing His authority in the lives of people, and for times just like these.  If I may say so, it is each one of us AND our houses of worship who have been bestowed with the mantle of spiritual governorship to address the necessary task at hand with the power, compassion, and efficiency needed.

We all — loudly, as Americans, whether personally involved in spiritual gatherings or not — really should be discussing if stay-at-home orders from state/federal officials should supersede a Constitutional guarantee of freedom in religious assembly (especially since such orders are currently apart from any specific guidelines as to whether or not a stay-at-home order is justified).  We should be discussing if this is contrary to the Scriptural admonition for us to “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together.” (Heb. 10:24-25, NASB)

There is a purpose and a point in our “assembling together”…and it is not necessarily for US.  We are NOT called to live for ourselves.  WE have been tasked to be bringers of Light in dark situations; WE have been tasked to share Living Water with those whom the world has wrung dry.  

Matt Walsh states in this article, “This is not ‘health and safety.’  This is tyranny.”   Walsh subsequently asks the question, “Can the government simply declare all churches non-essential, close them indefinitely, and thus circumvent the First Amendment with so much ease as to render it effectively nullified from here on out?”

THIS is the discussion that we-the-people and we-the-children-of-God need to decide within our congregations and bring to the doors of our local, county, state and federal levels of  government.  

4-2-20 UPDATE:  After Hillsborough County arrested Pastor Howard-Browne of Revival International Ministries, the local government has done a 180-turnaround.  According to lc.com (site of Liberty Council), “The council voted to recognize churches as ‘essential,'” reversing an earlier decision which resulted in Pastor Howard-Browne’s arrest.  In addition, “Any future guidance the county may issue will be recommendations and not enforceable.”  The site also reports that Florida Ron DeSantis amended his April 1 executive order for shelter-in-place to recognize that “‘religious services conducted in churches, synagogues, and houses of worship” are “Essential activities.” Liberty Council was in the process of filing a federal lawsuit against Hillsborough County.

Your Future Self and a New Day of Destiny

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New Year’s Day.

I am thinking about a poster I photographed on my camera phone, which read, “Do something today which your future self will thank you for.”  I posted that picture on social media and subsequently deleted it from my storage…but I have thought of it often in the year or two since then.

Your future self.

Sometimes it’s difficult to think of yourself as anything except “what” or “who” or even “where” you are, right now – and the details of that identity probably involve considerable time and energy to fulfill the routine and responsibility that is attached.

I certainly fit that category.  But I know there is “more to me” than what I currently see and express, because there is “more of Him in me” that is constantly seeking to be released.

Envisioning my “future self” can be a tangible motivation to seek my heavenly Father Hope candle w flowersand ask His participation in bringing me to those steps, that growth, training, discipline and focus necessary to “being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.” (2 Cor. 3:18)

The “same image,” of course, is His – “Beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord.”  But He chooses our individual and unique flavor of “the glory of God” to tangibly display His amazing, multifaceted love, mercy and transformative power to the world and populations He loves.

New Year’s Day is a fitting time to take a few minutes and think about that concept.  Of the many tasks and engagements involving you, right now – which of them touch others with His Presence or cooperate with Him to develop those giftings, opportunities, assignments He has for each of us?  Which are those activities which Paul describes to those of us who are “His workmanship” as being “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10)

It is our ability to “walk in them” that is impaired by endless routine and responsibility which the world’s system is happy to throw our way.  It is one of the enemy’s schemes that we are so thoroughly deterred and drained by earthly focus and demands that we have no energy or vision for heavenly opportunities.  No energy or vision to make preparations for “your future self”…a forthcoming, fresh release of His Presence, Christ in us, “the hope of glory.”  (Col. 1:27)

Today is a good day to “take a stand.”  Today is a great day to ask His guidance in sifting through the necessary and the assumed-necessary.

The Passion Translation begins Romans 13:12 with the words, “Night’s darkness is dissolving away as a new day of destiny dawns.”

IMG_5368I like that phrase, “new day of destiny.”  As 2020 starts, we actually face a new decade of destiny.

In this New Year’s Day context, I think of “night’s darkness” as being those deceptions and busy-work the enemy endlessly shovels onto our path to drown out His Word and stifle His “light to my path.” (Psa. 119:105)

Today is the perfect day to consider your plans and strategies with a  future thanksgiving in mind.

The Switched Nativity

Jesus in the center.

Nativity pic 02I was carefully setting up this year’s Nativity display on the wooden shelf by the fireplace.   I meticulously turned individual pieces in incremental degrees until each one faced Baby Jesus in a stance that reflected wonder and adoration.

With a sense of satisfaction, I stepped back to view the final arrangement.

I sort of chuckled at myself, knowing full well that Biblical timelines do not place Jesus’ birth, first shepherds, and traveling kings all arriving in Bethlehem at the same time.  Still, I love creating a niche every year that displays that time-condensed version of the events as described.

Unexpectedly, I felt like the Spirit whispered, That’s not what it looks like today.  After that statement, a clear image flashed into my mind.  In that image, each of my Nativity pieces had been switched around and now stood in a completely different configuration.

Nativity SwitchedInstead of all attention focused towards Jesus, I saw Joseph, Mary, all three kings and even the shepherd, all facing one another in a circle of earnest conversation.   Their circle was closed and turned away from the Messiah.  He and the manger had been positioned at the opposite end of the shelf…alone, except for the company of a glass donkey and lamb.

The redesigned arrangement was thought-provoking.

I mused regarding the role each character might represent in today’s world:  the three kings would still represent leaders of nations, countries, and their respective political systems.   Joseph – perhaps a representation of men stepping forward to mentor, to “father” others, to model godly masculinity and leadership to the next generation; Mary — carrying the concerns, responsibilities and unique callings of women?  And the shepherd – would he represent a segment of the less fortunate in this world, or those who dedicate themselves to finding and winning lost hearts back to God?

In this Nativity’s switched layout, the people and those they stood for were not seeking wisdom or guidance from the Miracle Worker, the King of Kings who has government “rest on His shoulders,” the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6) though He was very near to all of them.

Instead, they talk-talk-talked only amongst themselves, solidifying their own worldview in which each was a captive, both a victim and perpetrator of the worldly system’s injustices.

light shaft in clouds, ver, origBut God is never static and never distant.  “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.”  (I John 3:8)  One of my favorite Old Testament verses is Habakkuk 1:5 – “Look among the nations!  Observe!  Be astonished!  Wonder!  For I am doing something in your days – you would not believe it even if you were told!”

God is always “doing something” in whatever days we find ourselves. 

Good days.  Bad days.  Days we anticipate with joy and even those days we face with dread and prayer.  A “perfect Nativity” in this life has yet to be fully implemented or fully manifested in any area of our earthly walk, our sojourner’s path through both the marvelous and the horrific.

“The reason the Son of God was revealed was to undo and destroy the works of the devil.” (I John 3:8, The Passion Translation)

God is never without purpose.

IMG_1679The essence of “The Christmas Story” is not diminished even towards those nations whose cultures and calendars forbid its acknowledgement or celebration.  God is always seeking His lost sheep, His captured children held deep inside satanic fortresses.  As the grace of the Holy Spirit is poured out on those who seek it, so it is also poured out on those who are standing with their backs turned away from Him.

There is a resounding “Glory to God in the highest” that is constantly shed abroad, a sharing to step into the announcement “I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people.”

The Kingdom and a Cup of Coffee

June 11, 2019:  I must be tired this morning, as evidenced by the fact I poured the sugar into my coffee cup…before I poured in the coffee!  That may be the common sequence for you or most of my coffee-drinking friends, but not for me.  And as I stared at the granulated crystals in disbelief, I started to chuckle.

The Lord often brings Scriptures to my mind at the oddest times.  In that moment, glaring into my sugar-only coffee cup, that act represented the futility of effort without purpose, and I thought of Ahimaaz.  No, not by his exact name at first…but I recalled the Old Testament incident of the youth who insisted on running a considerable distance to King David as if he had an urgent message — even though he had been given no message to carry.

In 2 Samuel 18:19-32, Ahimaaz the son of Zadok earnestly requested that Joab allow him to carry news of Absalom’s death to King David.  Joab refused his request, stating, “You are not the man to carry news this day, but you shall carry news another day.”  Ahimaaz repeated his request to run, to which Joab responded, “Why would you run, my son, when you have no reward for going?”  Finally, Ahimaaz insisted that even without a message to deliver, “But whatever happens, I will run.”  Joab finally gave consent for him to go ahead and carry out his plan.

Ahimaaz not only ran the full distance, but ran with such great speed he actually passed the Cushite messenger Joab had commissioned to perform the task.  And, upon arriving, bowed before King David with a greeting of generically good news.  Since he was unable to answer the specific questions on the king’s mind, he was instructed to “Turn aside and stand here.”  The actual messenger had been observed from a distance and was now approaching.

Sugar in a cup devoid of coffee.  That’s what Ahmaaz was, on that day.

And unfortunately, we all fall into that category at one time or another.

Path up mtn, RMNPThe apostle Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize?  Run in such a way that you may win…therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air…” (I Cor. 9:24, 26)

Tiredness.  Distraction.  Misdirection. The monotony of too-full days following one after another.  The world and the enemy work overtime to procrastinate or eliminate any sense of divine destiny we may contemplate. The goal is to conform us to a role of subservience, being little more than slaves whose lives unceasingly focus on meeting worldly obligation and expectation.

IMG_9112Prayer.  Worship.  Reflection on His thinking, His priorities, His lifestyle.  Aligning choices with His wisdom.  Discovering our part in His plans and consciously choosing to focus and move forward in that direction with deliberation, acknowledging that we are His hands, feet, and voice on the road we travel.

In Acts 20:24, Paul makes reference that he needed to “finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus.”

It is not only Paul who had a course and ministry to finish, but the same Christ Jesus also gives to each one of us a course and a ministry.  Paul taught those in Ephesus, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10)

Some of our courses are what the world labels “grand” or “extraordinary”…and some are what the world would consider modest, perhaps even inconsequential.

Zach with cakeYet, was Jesus’ command to His disciples, “Permit the children to come to Me” (Mark 10:14) any less holy, God-breathed, or manifesting-the-Father’s-love than His command to Lazarus, “Come forth!”?  (John 11:43)

Not really.  There is no greater wonder than an omniscient, all-wise and loving God who states that “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these,” with respect to children.  As translated in The Message, Romans 9:21-22 asks the question, “Isn’t it perfectly obvious that the potter has a perfect right to shape one lump of clay into a vase holding flowers and another into a pot for cooking beans?”

IMG_9172And there we are.  Some of us shaped as coffee cups that are truly breathtaking in their intricately shaped handle and elaborate gold-leafed, colorful adornment….and some who are one-shaded, simply designed, functional without any specific distinction.

The shape of the cup is not ours to choose…our choice is to liberally be filled with His coffee and not conduct our lives as empty vessels containing only a small scoop of sugar.

Bird Steps and the Path of Wisdom

I was watching a small black bird carefully weave its path through piles of birdseed recently kicked to the deck by a sunflower seed-thieving chipmunk.  I was amazed at how carefully the bird chose which seeds to eat, walking right over some kernels while stopping to furiously peck at others.  Despite a diverse mixture of shapes, sizes and textures, I consider the round-and-the-long to all fit into a single category:  birdseed.  Each and every kernel providing a perfect diet fit for any bird to eat.

And then the Lord brought the word wisdom to my mind.  That quite-small bird possessed an even tinier brain.  Yet its loving Creator had instilled the appropriate amount of divine wisdom within it to recognize and choose which seeds were most beneficial to eat when presented with a wide selection to choose from.IMG_5447

And in that moment, I “got the message” — at least one of the messages:  quite often the seeds we choose to accept for our personal life-nourishment lack the wisdom God gave a bird.

Twice in Scripture, the word “leaven” is mentioned and each time it shares the same warning: “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough?” (I Cor. 5:6, NASB) To the Galatians, Paul spoke, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough.”  (Gal. 5:9)

These are short but significant statements, worthy to serve as launch pads for personal reflection and assessment.

It’s no secret that the world offers us many different seeds; on some occasions, they are hurled in our direction with such force that it feels like we are being blasted by a sandstorm.  Like the bird, we need to proceed with caution as we look around us and see what has landed at our feet.  For each one will bear its intrinsic destiny of fruit.  Just as we have the free will to choose nutrition-anemic Twinkies over vitamin-packed blueberries for our bodies, so we have the same free will to choose “junk food” (or even poison!) to plant the rudiments of future devastation into the soil of our souls, into the gardens of our faith. IMG_3318

Which brings us back to being mindful regarding the leaven in our lives.

Hebrews 5:4 teaches, “But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” (NASB)  The Passion Translation states that scripture in this manner:  “But solid food is for the mature, whose spiritual senses perceive heavenly matters.  And they have been adequately trained by what they experience to emerge with understanding of the difference between what is truly excellent and what is evil and harmful.”

Perceiving spiritual matters.

The most public current flowing through our culture is to portray “spiritual matters” devoid of any relationship with a relational, holy and good God.  Or, to flip the coin, that same current pulls in philosophical and socio-political dregs that attempt to redefine the nature of the phrase “spiritual matters,” blurring and twisting boundaries between “truly excellent” and what may be categorized as “evil and harmful.”img_7251

Think about the practical applications of knowing and embracing this discernment:  The difference between what is truly excellent and what is evil and harmful.

I sometimes feel like the Ben Gates character in National Treasure, when he reads a key phrase on future destiny from the Declaration of Independence and then states, “Nobody talks like that anymore.”

The truth is, we should.

We breathe and walk in the midst of a generation and culture in desperate need of understanding these two concepts.  We carry out our everyday lives in the midst of a generation and culture whose surrounding influences have flipped and twisted the concepts of “truly excellent” and “evil and harmful” nearly beyond recognition, enticing us all to eat that harmful seed of non-distinction.

And some of us have.  The leaven of each concept, mixed and roiling internal conflict within us, silences our voices and dulls our convictions.

Yet His Spirit encourages us with the words, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if IMG_8744there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” (Phil. 4:8, NASB)

These are not mere “good thoughts” to keep a smile on our faces throughout the day.  These are terms of warfare.  Standards by which crooked paths may be set straight.

Truth.  Honor.  Right.  Purity.  Loveliness.  Good repute.  Excellence.  That which is worthy of praise.  Each of these is leaven to be stirred into the dough of our conscience, courage, and love towards others.  Each of those, once planted, is a seed from which roots will form and a powerful crop will emerge.  The enemy is always seeking to supplant each one with a counterfeit, a substitute loyal to himself.

Urgently, brethren, we need to order our path with “bird steps” – carefully examining the seeds that are thrown before us, rejecting as unpalatable those seeds that defy His wisdom.  Let us carefully embrace and nurture those that will enable us to walk as He walked, “making the most of your time, because the days are evil.” (Eph. 5:16, NASB)