A MESSAGE FROM REV. J.C. AUSTIN
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of self-discipline”
(2 Timothy 1:7)
I’m starting this pastoral message with that verse because I want to talk about our preparations for and responses to the spread of the coronavirus here at First Presbyterian through that theological lens.
As Christians, we are called and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to live in response to the challenges and dangers of this world with power, love, and self-discipline, and not fear. Therefore, our responses to this set of challenges and dangers will be characterized by those fruits of the spirit. Let me address each of those fruits in light of this issue in turn, albeit in a different order.
A Spirit of Self-Discipline
Our general approach can be summed up in the watchwords that I gave in the worship services last Sunday: “keep calm and wash your hands.” The most contagious disease in the world is fear, and a spirit of self-discipline is one of the most powerful protections against it. So let us all be disciplined about what information we spread, particularly online, where it can be hard to determine how grounded in truth an article or story may be, and where there is a particular incentive to incite fear in order to prompt clicks on stories.
The current advice from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) continues to be that the general threat level is low, but that it is prudent and helpful for individuals and organizations to take precautions against spreading the virus, especially out of concern for those who are particularly vulnerable: those who are in poor general health, and those who have compromised immune systems or respiratory conditions. If that changes, so will our advice and response, but until then, we are basing our response on this direction.
In addition to the CDC, we have consulted the advice of various Christian denominational entities, the leaders of other congregations across the country, and leaders in the fields of virology and public health who are members of First Presbyterian to determine what our practices of self-discipline should be now as a church, and that they are wise and prudent without succumbing to fear. These may go through iterations, but they include the following:
- Please stay home if you have any symptoms of illness, especially fever or persistent coughing/sneezing. This is the most important practice of self-discipline that there is, and not just related to church activities, but also work, school, public events, social gatherings, etc. Washing hands is a very helpful protection, but as both flu and coronavirus are primarily spread through respiration, the biggest risk is proximity exposure, and the best defense is self-isolation of people with any symptoms.
- We will continue the protocols we implemented in worship last Sunday regarding Passing of the Peace, the Sacrament of Communion, and greeting at the door, which basically boil down to not shaking hands and limiting contact of communion elements to the preparers and servers as much as possible, who have taken extra precautions in terms of hand-washing, sterilizer, and gloves. Our next communion service will be Palm Sunday; if there are any further changes to our practices for that service, we will notify you.
- For Lenten Suppers, the Hospitality Hours on Sunday, and any other food being served at church functions, we are now asking people to sterilize their hands before taking any food, and to take similar precautions with any food that they prepare to bring in. However, you are more than welcome to “brown bag” your own dinner for the Lenten Suppers if you prefer, and obviously to abstain from food if you have any concerns.
- All of these are subject to change based on new developments and further information; we will update you through the newsletter, Facebook, and in worship services if such changes do occur, so please monitor those sources.
A Spirit of Love
Here I want to hold up two dimensions for our response. The first is compassion and care. Self-isolation, either because you are ill or because you are concerned about exposure, is by definition isolating.
So this week, we are beginning to livestream our Traditional worship service on Facebook Live; you can go to our Facebook page and find a link to watch the service remotely as it is happening. If for some reason you cannot join at that time, a link to the recording of the service will be on the church website on Monday.
That way you can be part of the church in worship remotely; the Spirit can move through the Internet as well as in person! We will be looking at other possibilities to care for people who are avoiding going out, as well, both in our congregation and beyond. If coronavirus does spread widely and begin to impact everyday life, then we will have both the opportunity and the responsibility to consider how it is affecting the most vulnerable people in our community and how we may be able to serve them better.
The second dimension for our response is justice and solidarity. The fact that the coronavirus began in China has been seized upon by white supremacists as an opportunity for anti-Asian agitation in this country, and there has also been an upswing in general racist behavior towards Asian-Americans as well, with many Asian-Americans reporting virus-themed bullying in school and insults on the street and online, as well as notable declines in patronage of Asian restaurants.
Such behavior is all rooted in a spirit of fear, and we are called to reject and resist it. If you witness such behavior, online or in person, please take the opportunity to “speak the truth in love” by declaring support for those being mistreated and by rejecting division, ignorance, and hate in favor of expressing a spirit of love and solidarity.
A Spirit of Power
As Christians, we believe that we live in the power of God’s gracious love through Jesus Christ, and that nothing “…in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). So no matter how powerful fear may be, God’s love is more powerful. In fact, Scripture goes further and tells us that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). So as we journey through these days together, let us work to cast out fear in ourselves and others through the power of love, the power of God’s love that is more powerful than anything that seeks to oppose it. Let us trust in the power of love and practice it as we love God, and one another, and our neighbors as ourselves, as God has called us to do.
Grace and Peace,