Background: In light of everything going on in the country, I previously made a case that we need to gather people together and pray and fast. Since that post, things have continued along the same course. It’s time to become more intentional about moving forward. Please join us for a three day, virtual solemn assembly next week.
Here are the details:
When: We are holding a solemn assembly, virtually and in small groups, starting on Tuesday, April 7th at 7:00 PM Central Standard Time. The goal will be prayer meetings on Wednesday (4/8) and Thursday (4/9) as well.
How: We will gather virtually to start each meeting with the help of Zoom. People gathering are encouraged to fast for the three days of solemn assembly.
Where: To be determined. We want to gather in various places across our city in groups smaller than ten, government permitting, for those that are able and want to meet together. (More on where below.)
Who: If you are a believer in Jesus, we encourage you to join us.
Leaders: While the names of people who are leading isn’t important, we are looking for people who will join us in opening their homes for small gatherings. If you are interested in opening up your home for a group of ten or less to pray, please join us on a call to talk about the details of the upcoming solemn assembly. This call will be accessible using the following Zoom details:
Time: Mar 31, 2020 07:00 PM Central Time (US and Canada)
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 571 011 773
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So where do we go?
I think this is where many of us our struggling. Our natural inclinations in a normal crisis would push us closer to others in the church or push us to share the Gospel with those who don’t have it. This crisis, though? We’re being told that the most loving, compassionate thing we can do is to hide ourselves from others. While I understand the science behind why, I think many people are having a hard time knowing what to do in this moment.
God’s Answer in the Crisis
God has an answer for crises throughout human history and we find them in the book of Joel. Yesterday, we looked at the crisis that broke out in Joel’s day and what it means for us. Today, I want to take a look at a specific action he called on the nation to take: Sacred Assemblies.
After Joel reminds the nation depth of judgment they’ve been in, Joel tells the people how to respond:
Consecrate a fast,Joel 1:14, New American Standard Bible
Proclaim a solemn assembly;
Gather the elders
And all the inhabitants of the land
To the house of the Lord your God,
And cry out to the Lord.
What is a solemn assembly? It’s where everyone suspends business as usual and gathers together to return to the Lord. Joel later says,
‘Yet even now,’ declares the Lord,Joel 2:12-14, New American Standard Bible
‘Return to Me with all your heart,
And with fasting, weeping and mourning;
And rend your heart and not your garments.’
Now return to the Lord your God,
For He is gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness
And relenting of evil.
Who knows whether He will not turn and relent
And leave a blessing behind Him…
God has an answer for the crisis in front of us and it’s not only to sit in front of our TV’s and wait for sickness to past. We are being called to assemble before God, call a fast, and repent. The point is not to perform a religious ritual. The point is to enter in to a process of repentance. God’s answer for the crisis is for us to use it as a time to turn us back to God. This is really not all that different than what Jesus said about the crises that disciples asked Jesus about. “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” (Luke 13:5).
Solemn Assemblies in Light of Covid-19
This particular crisis is full things that we haven’t seen before. One of them is the nature of the crisis seemingly demands that we separate rather than gather. How do we gather solemn assemblies in the hour of Covid-19?
As of this writing (7:00 AM on 3/24/2020) the CDC is recommending not meeting in groups larger than 10 people to prevent the spread of this infection. This obviously limits the size of solemn assemblies, something we’ve seen generally in the hundreds, especially in times of crisis. Some states and cities have shelter in place orders that are not allowing for people to leave their homes at all.
The answer is to still call solemn assemblies. We just need to make them smaller.
We need a two pronged approach. There’s still a place for many in our nation to gather together in groups of ten or less and pray in their homes. For those that have this freedom and are not in the category of immuno-compromised individuals, I would suggest gathering together to pray. Gather together with fellow believers. Much of the world has been changed in the past when small groups of believers gather together and pray. Fast and pray together. Seek the Lord for your city’s welfare, for the welfare of your church, and the welfare of this nation.
For those who are in shelter in place states/cities or are in an immuno-compromised state, as much as I hate to admit it, now is the time to take advantage of existing technology to gather in groups and pray together. Zoom, a video conferencing solution used in business is getting a lot of air time lately. They have free and paid options. You can find alternatives for Zoom here. Use these technologies in conjunction with other believers to gather together and pray.
The crisis is too great to sit on the sidelines.
What This Will Require
This will require a new level of leadership from those who have never thought they were leaders. There will be those who have never started something that will be required to stick out their neck and try something they’ve never done. There will be people who have never prayed out loud before that will need to pray out loud. You will find yourself doing things that you only thought pastors needed to do in the past. None of this is bad, it’s just uncomfortable. Remember, we are in an hour like no other. It will require us to do things we’ve never done before.
Who knows whether the Lord will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind Him?
Consecrate a fast.
Gather the elders.
Cry out to the Lord.
It’s a little bit of an understatement to say we are living in the midst of a crisis. Unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime, COVID-19 has single-handedly brought everything in the country to a near standstill. Nothing, not terrible natural disasters, not mass shootings, not even the terror attacks on September 11th have touched this country, it seems, in the way that this virus has.
Regardless of how serious you feel the virus is itself, the crisis we find ourselves in is real. As of this writing 15,219 people are infected and 201 people have died in the United States in a very short period of time. Beyond just the physical impact to bodies, a pandemic of fear has gripped the country and measures taken to slow the spread of the virus have shut down large parts of our economy.
This is a crisis. Which is why I’m concerned.
The Church Should Lead in Times of Crisis
The church has a particular responsibility in the midst of crisis to respond with leadership and the mandate of heaven for the hour that we’re living in. So far, most of what I’ve seen has been the church following the guidance of the CDC.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to undermine or underestimate the importance of cleanliness or not touching your face, but much of the church is operating as if the only answers they have are the answers of the secular government. We should honor and respect the leadership God has given the government, but there is always more the church can do.
This is the problem. God has an answer for crisis and it’s not only sitting in front of your television in an effort not to spread disease. So much of the body of Christ has been divided into two camps: A group that is content to resemble the world, stay home, and watch Netflix or a second group that has been obsessed with trying as best as we can in a COVID-19 world to re-establish business as usual in the church. The first group acts as if this is a giant vacation. The second group has busied themselves with live streams to replace the church and online giving platforms to keep the money coming in. Both fall short of God’s plan for the church in times of crisis.
God’s Strategy for Crisis
What is God’s plan for crisis? And how do we respond? Briefly let me introduce to you to the book of Joel. It is written by a prophet caught in a crisis. Locusts have devastated Israel’s agricultural economy by eating everything. Joel, asks questions that feel so appropriate, even now:
Hear this, O elders,
And listen, all inhabitants of the land.
Has anything like this happened in your days?Joel 1:2, New American Standard Bible
Not only is there a crisis, but it’s going to get worse. Joel comes with a message from the Lord to awaken his people like a trumpet (Joel 2:1). He calls the people to gather together and consecrate a fast (Joel 1:14). The goal of the fast is a full turning back to the Lord (Joel 2:15). We’ll talk more about that in a future post, but I can’t over-emphasize a small point that you could miss. Here’s what Joel says to a people in the midst of crisis:
Blow a trumpet in Zion,Joel 2:15-15, New American Standard Bible
Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly,
Gather the people, sanctify the congregation,
Assemble the elders,
Gather the children and the nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom come out of his room
And the bride out of her bridal chamber.
It’s No Longer Business As Usual
Part of God’s solution in the midst of crisis is to suspend normal activity. We can’t act as if everything is normal if it’s not. It’s almost as if God is trying to shake Israel (and us) out of their spiritual sleep. Here they were in the midst of crisis and people were still separated, still taking care of the kids, still marrying and being given in marriage. And Joel, like a trumpet, says, “Stop. Quit trying to act like everything is normal. It’s not normal. This is a crisis and it demands a response from the people of God not like every day activities! Gather the people. Call a spontaneous fast. Bring together the all the people that are difficult to gather. Even stop the weddings. It’s time to respond to the Lord.”
Friends, this is the day we’re in. We are in a crisis. We cannot only respond like the rest of the world. We can’t only be concerned with keeping people in the church entertained and engaged and giving. It’s time for the church to respond with the strategy of the Lord in this hour.
We’ll talk a little bit more about what I think that looks like soon.
On Sunday, we gathered as a church. We normally gather at nine and end sometime between noon and one, depending on when we get done eating together. Our most recent gathering, though, was from nine to five.
What happened? Well, a couple of things. First, a number of us had wanted to watch the Kansas City Chiefs play against the Tennessee Titans. That game started at 2:00. When we gathered on Sunday morning, we realized that there were some needs in the body that needed to be met that day and a brother and I decided to help between noon and 2:00. The rest stayed back and readied our house for the game. So our official “meeting” went until 12:30, but most of our church was together until about 5:00.
What was so awesome was that this felt like family. We encouraged each other in the morning: we sang, we read the Scriptures, we ate, we prayed, we even watched the kids put on a performance they created themselves. During that time we also talked, joked around, and shared hearts. When we were serving one of our brothers, we had some chances to interact with the community and do some outreach. Even while we were watching the football game, we discussed spiritual matters in between the action.
We don’t do this regularly, but we do this when it happens naturally. There’s no glory in just sitting in a room together for long hours to show how spiritual we are. However, when we can be family to each other, enjoy each other’s company, and help each other and other’s get closer to Jesus, there doesn’t have to be a clean start or stop time. We’re just together.
It was how church was designed to be.
Those of you who have been around for awhile may know that I have a deep love for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and Nazi resistor who ultimately gave his life trying to stop Hitler and the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was a more than just a resistor, though. He understood the centrality of Christ and His Church in a way that few did in his day.
Right now I’m taking a deep dive into Bonhoeffer’s life. I think there’s a lot to learn there. Here’s a quote I ran across today:
There is a word that when a Catholic hears it kindles all his feelings of love and bliss; that stirs all the depths of his religious sensibility, from dread and awe of the Last Judgement to the sweetness of God’s presence; and that certainly awakens in him the feeling of home; the feeling that only a child has in relation to its mother, made up of gratitude, reverence and devoted love; the feeling that overcomes one when, after a long absence, one returns to one’s home, the home of one’s childhood.
And there is a word that to Protestants has the sound of something infinitely commonplace, more or less indifferent and superflous, that does not make their heart beat faster; something with which a sense of boredom is so often associated, or which at any rate does not lend wings to our religious feelings–and yet our fate is sealed if we are unable again to attach a new or perhaps very old meaning to it. Woe to us if that word does not become important to us soon again, does not become important in our lives.
Yes, the word to which I am referring is ‘Church’, the meaning of which we have forgotten and the nobility and greatness of which we propose to look at today.Dietrich Bonehoeffer: A Biography by Eberhard Bethge, Page 42
Are we not in the same place today? Do we not need to recover the meaning of the word ‘Church’ and make it central and sacred in our lives?
Last week I tweeted a link to the statement of imprisoned Chinese church leader Wang Yi’s church. You can read it here.
In brief, Wang Yi is the pastor of an underground church in China, Early Rain Covenant Church. Pastor Wang and 100 of his fellow believers were arrested by the Chinese government about one year ago. Now, Wang has been sentenced to nine years in prison for subversion of state power and illegal business operations.
What I love about this statement is how it emphasizes things that we wouldn’t emphasize if we are being persecuted. The statement is written by a people who know what it means to suffer and how to do it well. It’s a model for how us as Christians should handle suffering as it becomes more and more normal to suffer for Christ in the West.
Here are just a few thoughts from the letter that I think Western Christians can learn from:
- “Christians should be willing to submit to the government’s physical restrictions of them.” What’s refreshing about this take is that Christians in America often get caught in a kind of antagonism where if we are jailed or even lightly rebuked for sharing the Gospel, we want to demand our rights. The apostle Peter tells us to submit to civil authority and to bear up under the pressure of suffering, even though we’ve done nothing wrong (see 1 Peter 2:13-20).
- Pastor Wang’s arrest is part of his calling. In the West, we often take on titles and positions as an antidote to suffering. We give difficult, arduous tasks to those who are farther down the “ministry ladder” than we are. However, Pastor Wang and his church understand suffering as a normal part of his calling. 1 Peter 2:20 tells us that we are called to follow Jesus into the same type of suffering he endured. We are called to suffering, especially as a servant of the Gospel. So OF COURSE he’s suffering. He’s responded to God’s call on his life. May we understand again that our calling is not what’s written on a business card, but to literally follow the footsteps of Christ, whichi includes suffering as He did.
- No crimes were committed. In a free society, Yi would not be jailed for his actions. I find this part of the statement interesting, mostly because I believe this to be an effort of the church to earn credibility with the Chinese people and people around the world. In arguing that he has not committed a crime, the church is defending his morality and trying to earn rapport with the rest of the world. Peter tells us it’s better to keep our integrity and suffer rather than to suffer for committing and actual crime (1 Peter 3:16-17) and the church seems to be making a case that this is what happened.
- No hate, just evangelistic love. After some exhortations of the Chinese government to “stay in their lane,” the church calls on believers to pray for the salvation of the Chinese government. This is so crucial. Many would be tempted to pray down God’s judgment, but the church is following in Jesus’ steps and saying “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they do,” (Luke 23:24). It’s this kind of heart cry that will open the hearts of unjust persecutors to the truth of the Gospel and save some of them.
Imagine this-the church in America can learn to suffer for the glory of God. We can learn to submit to government authority and still obey God. We can embrace suffering as part of our calling and maintain our integrity. We can even pray for those who persecute us to find the light and the truth. We have no better teacher in this than our brothers and sisters in China and other parts of the world.
We just need to be willing to learn from them.
Picture yourself alongside the apostle Paul. There you are in a dark, miserable prison. Rats are plentiful. The smell of human waste is everywhere. You have no idea when you’re going to be released. You’ve been faithful to Jesus to share the good news of the gospel with many in the city of Philippi and because of that, you’ve had handcuffs slapped on your wrists and you were thrown into this prison.
Then, Paul leans over to you. You don’t necessarily expect Paul to gripe and complain, but you weren’t prepared for what he said next: “Brother, I know it’s late. I know we’ve just been beaten and the rats are starting to nip at us, but we should start praising the Lord.”
In that moment, what would your reaction be?
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I would just jump right in singing and praising God like Silas did. Your reaction to that statement tells a lot about what you believe God deserves praise for. Paul had learned something that others before Him learned: We don’t just praise God because circumstances are going well. We praise Him because of who He is.
In this way, praise is a discipline. We don’t just wake up one morning desiring to praise God in the darkest and most bitter circumstances. What’s more likely is that we begin every day to delight in God for who He is and what He’s done for us in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. *This allows us to praise Him no matter the circumstances.*
Listen to David:
“I will rejoice and be glad in Your lovingkindness,
Because You have seen my affliction;
You have known the troubles of my soul,” (Psalm 31:7)
“Sing for joy in the Lord, O you righteous ones;
Praise is becoming to the upright,” (Psalm 33:1)
“I will bless the Lord at all times;
His praise shall continually be in my mouth,” (Psalm 34:1).
All of these point to David calling us to make a decision, based on who God is, to offer praise. None of these commands are based on the circumstances going on around him or us. In fact, some of them call us to praise in spite of the circumstances.
Beloved, we must get better at praising God for *WHO* He is, despite our circumstances. It’s the only practice that will get us to the place where we praise God in the prison. We want to be the people whose spirits are so alive with God that despite the gruesomeness around us we still love God.
We don’t get there in a minute. We get there day by day, praising God where we are at right now.